My target is to play the Asian Cup, says Bala Devi

Recovering from ACL surgery, the India striker knows it is a long shot but then so was playing for Rangers.
Bala Devi(Rangers FC/Twitter) PREMIUM
Bala Devi(Rangers FC/Twitter)
Published on Oct 09, 2021 10:23 PM IST
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By Dhiman Sarkar, Kolkata

On the day we spoke, Rangers hosted Aberdeen in the Scottish Women’s Premier League (SWPL). Bala Devi, Rangers’ No. 10 last season, though was quarantining in Karnataka’s Bellary where she will resume rehabilitation following surgery on her right leg.

“The injury happened inside the first 20 minutes of our away game to Forfar Farmington FC on May 26,” said Devi over the phone from the Inspire Institute of Sport where she will do an intensive recovery programme, possibly with two sessions daily, for the next three months. “I was trying to regain possession and had run 10-15 metres very fast. I lost my balance and had this injury.”

Thus ended Devi’s season in SWPL—the first by an Indian; one where Devi was a regular in the first-team squad, scored two goals and played 18 minutes as a substitute in the Celtic-Rangers derby.

An anterior cruciate ligament injury is bad news but what made it worse for Devi, who began her India career with five goals in a game and now has 42 from 47 ties, was getting Covid-19 soon after. That delayed the surgery.

“Had it been done in May, she could have recovered by November,” said Anuj Kichlu, the India head of The Best Of You Sports, the players’ management agency which represents Devi. Instead, Devi, 31, went under the knife in Kolkata on September 3. She did a month’s rehab in Kolkata before heading to Bellary.

Devi has set herself a January deadline to return to the pitch. That will give her some time to prove to India coach Thomas Dennerby that she wouldn’t be a hindrance if selected for the 2022 Asian Cup which India is hosting.

“My target is to play that tournament,” she said softly, but firmly. “I am sure this tournament will get the kind of following the under-17 World Cup did and help our game.”

The doctor (in Kolkata) said I am healing fast.” Devi said she is walking unaided and can do squats. “The full range of movement too is back.”

What Devi wants to do is show Dennerby that she is available. “Then it would be up to the coaching staff.” Speaking to the media last month, Dennerby all but ruled out Devi from the 12-team tournament that will run from January 20 to February 6. “For her it will be really tough to be ready,” said the 62-year-old Swede.

Devi knows the Asian Cup is a long shot but then so was her playing for Rangers. That story began in September 2019, said Kichlu on the conference call. Kichlu was in Glasgow on “some other work” and saw that Rangers were conducting trials for a women’s team. “They and Celtic, the country’s two biggest teams, had got serious about women’s football and really wanted to challenge Glasgow City who had been champions 13 times,” he said.

They didn’t, and Rangers finished third behind Celtic with Glasgow City winning their 14th league title in 2020-21.

But we are getting ahead of the story. Kichlu said he found out about Rangers wanting a women’s team in September, 2019, which was also around the time the Scottish giants began the partnership with Bengaluru FC. So, Kichlu asked if they would be interested in checking out the video of an Indian forward. They did and called Devi over for a 10-day trial in November.

“They had decided inside five days during which I also played a friendly where I scored three goals and had two assists,” said Devi. She has played in Maldives and had had clubs in Spain and Norway being interested “but I didn’t have the money and didn’t know how to go about the thing.”

“It had always been a dream to play professionally in Europe. I have played against Korea and other top teams, and though we lost, I knew I could match up to their level,” said Devi.

So there she was in Glasgow on an 18-month deal and among facilities that blew her mind. “This is a fully professional set up; the ground, infrastructure, even the cafeteria was better than what we would get for international tournaments. Our kits would be arranged and kept with name tags. You could train without distraction. Training was always serious but it would be the exact opposite afterwards when players would have a lot of fun with coach,” she said.

The number of games in Scotland was another thing she liked. Devi said including friendlies, league and cup ties it would be around 45-46 per season. The Indian Women’s League allows a maximum of seven. “That is why many players don’t stay in the game,” she said. Including inter-district competitions in Manipur, the national championship and internationals, Devi said she would play around 25 matches a year. And she was one of the lucky ones. Even if seven or eight India (ranked 57th in the world) players were in semi-professional clubs in Europe, it would assure them of more games and lift the national team, she said.

But all that she would get to know later. Just when Devi was finding her feet, the world went into a lockdown. From sharing lodgings with two teammates, Devi found herself alone “in a big flat” after they had left for home. She couldn’t do that because flights were grounded and because her family told her not to worry. “They are my biggest motivators,” said Devi.

But it wasn’t easy. Devi missed parents, two older brothers, her twin sister and pets. “We have two dogs and a cat. Dogs seek me out wherever I am and I absolutely love that,” she said. That is how it was for around 10 days. “Then I asked myself, “why am I here?” By being the first Indian woman in a top European league, I have made history so what should I do? By then, I had got familiar with the club’s training routines. So I worked very hard even though I didn’t have access to a pitch or kits. I would get into Zoom calls with players and also go to a park near my flat to train. I would do three sessions a day.”

It led to never-before achieved fitness levels. “When we resumed training in July, Malky said I had improved a lot,” said Devi. Malky is Malcolm Thomson, the head coach of the ladies’ team. It was Thomson who got Devi—who admires Cristiano Ronaldo and Megan Rapinoe—“she is so cool and calm that you have to look up to her”—to play No. 10 from being a striker.

If the IWL happens, Devi may play but she is unlikely to stay in India in 2022-23. Rangers extended her deal till December 31 but she may not return there. Devi will have to apply for a fresh work permit, getting which could be difficult because of the injury, said Kichlu. But he is confident that Devi will be in Europe next term. It could be in France or Portugal, he said.

“I keep telling myself that when something like this (the injury) happens, it does because there are better things in store. I know that with mehnat (hard work), I will get to play professionally in Europe again,” said Devi.

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Wednesday, October 20, 2021