The Indian women’s football team last beat Nepal in 2019, when it secured its third consecutive gold medal in the South Asian Games. The scorer of both goals in that match was Ngangom Bala Devi.
When the current side played the same opponent in Chennai last week, the match ended in a goalless draw, with Bala Devi watching from the stands.
Sitting at the VIP lounge of the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium with her eyes fixed on the field, she got up at times when the ball entered the final third and sighed when a crucial chance was missed.
The 33-year-old striker – with a ligament strain – has a sling attached to her shoulder and looked restless throughout the match, itching to come on, itching to score.
“I have some problem with my shoulder. This will take some weeks (to recover), but I am looking forward to coming back stronger with the team,” she tells Sportstar, smiling.
Bala Devi, with 52 goals in 58 matches, is India’s highest-ever goalscorer in women’s football.
Growing up in Manipur with three siblings, Bala turned heads at just 12 years old, when she won the best player award for her performance in the National Under-19 Women’s Championship in 2002. Three years later, she had the India jersey on.
Since then, the quick-footed forward, who grew up playing with boys, has become the most reliable player to look up to for goals for the state and the national team. She has won the SAFF Championship and the South Asian Games thrice and is the only Indian footballer to win the AIFF Women’s Player of the Year thrice (2014, 2015, 2020–21).
Trailblazer of women’s football in India
In January 2020, Bala Devi scripted history when she became the first Indian footballer – man or woman – to sign for a European Premier League club.
Signing for Scottish first-division side Rangers, the forward had to go through a painstakingly lengthy process to secure her permit in the United Kingdom.
In order to play football in the UK, a woman should have her national team within the top 40 FIFA rankings and should have played at least 75 per cent of her country’s matches over the previous two years.
With India then ranked 57, a special appeal to the Scottish Football Association (SFA) was made by the club, with additional backing from the All India Football Federation and former and current India players (Bhaichung Bhutia, Renedy Singh, Oinam Bembem Devi and Sunil Chhetri).
Finally, the dream move happened.
“I hope my move to Rangers serves as an example to all the women footballers back home in India who dream of taking up the sport professionally,” she had told the club website.
Bala Devi went on to become the first Indian goal scorer in Europe, scoring against Motherwell first and then a 30-yard stunner against Spartans. Talking about the experience, she says her stay there had been full of learnings.
“It is very important to have a longer season (to develop our game). When I was at Rangers for 18 months, we used to play a lot of matches. There, the players play about 40 international matches and around 40 league matches,” she says.
“They work a lot on their intensity and on the physical aspect of the game, but in terms of passing and skills, I think our players have the edge,” she adds.
‘I decided to come back to India and help my country’
The Rangers’ spell for the Manipur striker, however, ended rather unceremoniously when she decided to part ways with the club at the end of her contract in 2021.
Bala Devi has been playing for Manipur Police since and most recently won the gold medal for her state at the National Games 2022. When asked about the reason she decided to return to India, she says her intention was to prioritise national team football over league games.
“I had ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) surgery during my time at Rangers, and I missed around three years of action with the national team (with another ankle injury later),” she says.
“Now (this year), the Olympic Qualifiers are here and these will be very important for our national team. So, I decided to come back to India and help my country.”
Earlier this month, she decided to join the Odisha Women’s League Champion, Odisha FC, for the upcoming season and will pair up with compatriot Pyari Xaxa in attack.
While the Indian Women’s League has been extended from a 26-day tournament to a 55-day league format, Bala Devi believes more need to be done.
“For a fully-fit player (in Rangers), there were at least 70 to 80 matches lined up. In India, the number of matches is very less, even in the Indian Women’s League, a duration of 45 days is pretty less and we are not able to play even home and away games,” she says.
“The more we play, the more confident we get. So more exposure and long tournaments are needed (for us).”
Bala Devi’s shoulder injury is a big blow to India’s preparations, India’s head coach Thomas Dennerby told Sportstar after the match.
“Bala’s shoulder will need some rest. It is four weeks of rest and then she will start her rehab. But either way, the timing of the injury does not look good,” he said, shaking his head.
In April, India plays Turkmenistan and Kyrgyz Republic in the Round 1 qualifiers for the Paris 2024 Olympic Games – Bala’s raison d’être for returning home.
The Blue Tigresses will play Jordan and Uzbekistan before these matches and will hope their highest goalscorer makes a timely return to the squad.
“I am in constant touch with the doctor and the physio for my recovery and rehab. I will pray and hope that I get back in time. But even if that does not happen, I know India will give its all in the qualifiers,” she says.
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