Beacons who lit the way for women’s football in India

From the enigmatic Shanti Mallick to ‘Durga’ Bembem Devi - a look at some of the finest female football players in India.
By Utathya Nag

India hosting the FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup next year and the AFC Women's Asian Cup in 2022 will mark two huge landmarks for women's football in the country.

Following a tumultuous history spanning over four decades, women's football in India has been on the rise over the past 10 years. And the Indian women’s football team, under head coach Maymol Rocky, reaching the second round of Asian Olympics Qualifiers in 2018 for the first time in history bears testimony to just how far it has come.

Hosting the Youth World Cup and the premier Asian competition on Indian soil will only serve as further inspiration for the next generation to carry the flag forward.

But before looking towards a bright future, it’s important to take note of the past and the present to celebrate an incredible bunch of Indian female football players who made it all possible, despite the odds.

Shanti Mallick – a hero off the records

From 1975 to 1991, women’s football in India was run by the Women's Football Federation of India (WFFI) which operated under the Asian Ladies' Football Confederation (ALFC).

The ALFC, however, was not recognised by both FIFA and the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), hence rendering many of the matches and competitions the national team played as ‘unofficial’.

Despite that, the Indian eves were a dominant force in Asia at that time and finished runners up at the 1979 and 1983 AFC Women's Championships (precursor to the AFC Women's Asian Cup) and finished third at the 1981 edition in Hong Kong.

The biggest star of the Indian women’s team from that era was captain Shanti Mallick. A prolific scorer and a born-leader, Mallick was a technically gifted footballer and as legend has it, she wasn’t booked even once in her entire international career.

The stalwart from Bengal was also an accomplished cricketer, hockey player and a national-level handball champion in 1978.

A lot of her footballing achievements may not have featured officially on the record books, but Mallick was a true pioneer for women’s football in the country and became the first Indian female football player to be conferred with the prestigious Arjuna Award in 1983.

Oinam Bembem Devi – Indian football’s Durga

Bembem Devi is considered a living legend in Indian women’s football. Photo: AIFF.

Hailing from Manipur, Oinam Bembem Devi burst into the senior Indian women’s national team at the age of 15 and served the team for 21 years before finally hanging up her boots in 2016.

The midfielder played 85 matches for the national team and scored 32 goals. The numbers, however, are just the tip of the iceberg of what Bembem achieved for India.

Under Bembem’s captaincy, the Indian women’s football team won three back-to-back SAFF Cup titles (2010 in Bangladesh, 2012 in Sri Lanka and 2014 in Pakistan) and two South Asian Games gold medals (2010 in Bangladesh and 2016 in India).

On the personal front, she was named the All India Football Federation’s (AIFF) first-ever women’s Player of the Year in 2001 and won the award again in 2013, stamping her name as one of the finest female football players in India.

In 2017, she became only the second Indian female football player to win the Arjuna Award after Mallik and three years later, scripted her own piece of history by becoming the first woman footballer to win the Padma Shri – India’s fourth-highest civilian award.

Such was Bembem’s impact that she is often called the Durga (saviour deity) of women’s football in India. Bembem inspired a generation of Indian female football players and continues doing so as a coach.

She has already helped Eastern Sporting Union football club from Manipur win the Indian Women’s League (IWL) title in 2017 and is heavily involved with the Under-15, Under-16 and Under-17 women’s national teams

“Bembem in women's football is an inspiration. She has got almost every possible award a player could get,” said Bala Devi, the star striker of the current women’s national team.

Bala Devi – the Rangers’ No. 10

One of the many stars of the current side inspired by Bembem, striker Bala Devi has already cemented her place in Indian women’s football history.

Like Bembem, Bala broke into the senior team at the age of 15 and has been a mainstay in the squad since 2005. The striker boasts an impeccable scoring record for the national team, having racked up 52 goals in just 58 international games.

With these incredible numbers, it was hardly a surprise when Scottish giants Rangers FC came knocking in 2020.

भारतीय महिला फुटबॉलर बाला देवी

Bala – a two-time AIFF women’s Player of the Year winner in 2014 and 2015 – signed an 18-month contract with the Scottish Women’s Premier League side in January 2020, making her the Indian female football player to sign a professional contract with an overseas football club.

Rangers’ first-ever Asian international recruit, Bala also dons the prestigious No. 10 jersey for the Scottish club’s women’s team.

Aditi Chauhan – former West Ham star

Bala, however, isn’t the first Indian women’s footballer to ply her trade in Europe.

Indian national team goalkeeper Aditi Chauhan, also among the best female football players in India, played for the West Ham Ladies team in the Women's Premier League Southern Division - a third division semi-professional league in the women's football structure in England.

She was with the Hammers from 2015 to 2018 and also won the 2015 Woman in Football Award at the third Asian Football Awards in London.

Aditi has been Indian women’s national football team’s first-choice goalkeeper for years and has played a key role in India’s run to the Olympics qualifiers second round in 2018 among several other successes.

Ashalata Devi – successor to Bembem’s throne

An able successor to Bembem as the captain of the Indian women’s national team, Ashalata Devi has excelled in her role and is considered one of the finest defenders in Asia.

Ashalata captained India during their Olympics qualifiers campaign for Tokyo 2020 and led the team to the title at the 2019 South Asian Games.

India captain Ashalata Devi was in the shortlist for the AFC Women’s Player of the Year award in 2019. Photo: AIFF.

The hard-tackling defender has been with the senior team since 2012 and was adjudged the AIFF Women’s Player of the Year in 2019.

She was also amongst the final three-player shortlist for the AFC Player of the Year 2019 award. She was named alongside China’s Li Ying and eventual winner Japan's Saki Kumagai – a former Women’s FIFA World Cup winner and a silver medallist at the 2012 London Olympics.

The Indian captain has also played overseas, turning up for Maldivian football club New Radiant in the Dhivehi Premier League.

Besides these iconic five, the likes of Dangmei Grace, Ratnabala Devi, Dalima Chhibber and youngster Sanju Yadav - the 2020 AIFF Player of the Year winner - have all emerged as worthy role models for the next generation of Indian female football players.