Padma Shri recipient Bembem Devi lauds progress of women's football but laments the pay gap
Bembem, who is regarded as the flag bearer of Indian women's football, is the first female footballer from the country to receive Padma Shri.
After over two decades of service, which of course came with numerous sacrifices, 41-year-old Oinam Bembem Devi was honoured with the Padma Shri by President Ram Nath Kovind earlier in the week, a recognition which she feels will inspire many young girls to take the sport to a bigger level. Bembem, who is regarded as the flag bearer of Indian women's football, is the first female footballer from the country to receive the award as she now joins an elite list featuring Late Chuni Goswami, Late PK Banerjee, Bhaichung Bhutia, Sunil Chhetri among others.
Bembem is certain that her feat is just the beginning and this now opens the gate for other female footballers to join her. "It is the fourth-highest civilian award and being the first female footballer to receive it will motivate younger girls to do better and dream big."
"I played football for 21 long years, made numerous sacrifices and I was honoured with Padma Shri. However, they've got time and with important tournaments approaching, they can enhance their performance and contribute to the country. So I believe they will be awarded sooner," the 41-year-old said during a virtual media meet organised by AIFF on Friday afternoon.
Bembem, who is fondly addressed as the Durga of Indian football, picked the sport at a time when women's football in India was at a bare minimum, and over the course, she witnessed massive progress. When asked about the changes from her playing days to the current time, the Imphal-based ex-India footballer lists exposure at the top before adding lack of basic facilities such as "physio, sponsors, and travel unlike now."
She also lists the Indian Women's League (IWL) as a massive development in this sector but adds the meager payment as one of the biggest hindrances, which stops the female footballers from excelling in the sport. Taking a vocal stand for equal pay irrespective of gender, the 41-year-old remarks: "Female footballers are often paid in the bracket ranging between 20-60 thousand, which is too less. Even a girl needs financial assistance to make a career in football, so I want stakeholders, sponsors to motivate women equally."
"Meanwhile, there are no other tournaments apart from IWL and senior nationals, so we need more tournaments for the development of the sport," the ex-footballer with 85 international appearances further states.
India's preparations for upcoming AFC Women's Asian Cup
India is all set to host the next edition of the AFC Asian Cup, which will be played next year. With the team preparing for the megaevent, AIFF has arranged a trip for the footballers, where they will meet higher-ranked Brazil, Venezuela, and Chile. Sharing her views on the upcoming ties, Bembem recalls her playing days from the late 90s when her team traveled to Germany, and despite not being able to win it lifted the morale of the team.
"Playing against Brazil, Chile and Venezuela will lift the confidence because in 1997 we played against Germany and despite losing we were filled with new confidence and in the same year we went to China, where we lost 1-0 against Japan. So playing against a strong team does give you confidence and help them motivate," she says.
However, when asked if India can advance to the knockout stage of the AFC tournament, the Manipuri prefers not to comment and cites the example of Brazil's infamous 7-1 defeat against Germany in 2014.
"We cannot say anything in football for example when Brazil hosted the World Cup they lost 7-1 against Germany so it depends on the day. We need to analyse the group we are pooled in and then discuss with the coaches how to approach, but making any statements right now about India's campaign is not possible," notes Bembem.