New Delhi : Ignored for the Arjuna award thrice, India’s most capped woman footballer Oinam Bembem Devi feels her male counterparts have it better when it comes to awards and recognition despite a lower FIFA ranking.
Former India captain Bembem, who retired from international football last year after playing for the country in 85 international matches over a period of two decades, applied for the Arjuna Award three times in a row from 2014 to 2016 but each time, she missed out on the coveted honour.
Bembem, who made her international debut in 1995 as a 15-year-old and retired in February last year after guiding India to a gold medal in the South Asian Games in Shillong, lamented that women footballers are not considered at par with their male counterparts when it comes to recognition from the government.
“I applied for Arjuna Award for three years since 2014 and I was snubbed each time. Only men footballers have got Arjuna Award for so long, women footballers are not considered worthy of the Arjuna Award. I don’t know why. I feel women footballers should be treated at par with men footballers,” the 36-year-old Bembem told PTI in an interview. Last year, Subrata Paul, who has played for the country in 64 international matches as the men’s team goalkeeper from 2007 onwards was chosen for the award.
For the record, out of 24 Indian footballers who have so far been conferred with the Arjuna Award, 23 are men, the only woman player being legendary former Bengal and India captain Shanti Mullick who was bestowed with the honour in 1983.
In the last two decades, seven Indian footballers have won the Arjuna Award and all of them are men. Among them are stalwarts like I M Vijayan, Bhaichung Bhutia and Sunil Chhetri.
Bembem has won two SAFF Championships, two South Asian Games and has been an integral part of the Indian team in various international events like Asian Games, Olympics and and the AFC Asian Cup qualifiers. She has worn the captain’s armband in six international tournaments starting from 2003. Besides inspiring a generation of Indian women to take up football, especially in powerhouse Manipur and other states of Northeast India, Bembem is also a pioneer as she is the first to feature in a top-flight foreign league by playing for New Radiant Sports Club of Maldives in 2014.
Her club won the Maldives women’s league and became the highest goal-scorer. “We (women footballers) also win SAFF Championships, South Asian Games. We played in the Asian Games, qualifying tournaments of the World Cup, Olympics and AFC Asian Cup and we are even higher than men’s team in FIFA rankings but why do only men get Arjuna Award and not women footballers?” she rued.
While the Indian men’s team is ranked 129th, the women are placed 54th in the current FIFA rankings. Despite the disappointment, the Bembem’s life is all about football and a year after quitting the international scene, she is currently a part of All India’s Football Federation’s inaugural Indian Women’s League. She is the player-cum-captain of Manipur side Eastern Sporting Union. The league kicked off here on Saturday.
“My life is all about football. I breath, eat and live football,” said Bembem.
“I wanted to be a part of history and after serving Indian football for more than 20 years as a player I wanted to be part of history by taking part in this league which is an ambitious project for women’s football in the country. I congratulate the AIFF for starting this league,” said Bembem, who’s not charged a single penny for doubling up as player-cum-coach of the Manipur outfit.
Asked about the future of the league, she said, “I hope from next year onwards, this league will be played in home and away format. I am thinking that more women’s teams from the Indian Super League and I-League clubs will take part next year onwards and the profile of the women’s game will improve.
“That, I hope, will lead to women players also earning salaries just like their male counterparts and they can also earn a living. It’s in future but I hope these things happen and that will be a turning point in Indian women’s football,” said the Imphal-based 5-foot-2-inch-tall midfielder.
Talking further about women’s football, she said, “When I played in Maldives, I realised that women’s football is so popular even in a country like Maldives. Players from different countries play in the Maldives league. They have good infrastructure and the stadium was full in every league match. Their stadiums were not big but still they were full.
“Then I released that we are lagging behind in women’s football because it is more popular in a small country like Maldives. But we have to make a beginning and I feel that this Indian Women’s League is a new beginning,” she said.
Bembem has prepared herself to be associated with football in future as she is now an AFC ‘B’ License holder and she has started coaching a local football side in Imphal. —PTI
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