Bala Devi: The woman making Indian football history

  • Published
Ngangom Bala Devi holding her Rangers jerseyImage source, Twitter
Image caption,
Bala Devi has joined the Scottish club, Rangers FC

Ngangom Bala Devi became the first Indian woman pro-footballer when she signed an 18-month deal with the Scottish club, Rangers FC. BBC Marathi's Janhavee Moole spoke to the forward about her journey so far and what lies ahead.

Bala Devi, India's top scorer and a former captain of the national women's football team, is gearing up for a fresh challenge on the pitch.

"I want to make India proud," the 29-year-old forward told the BBC, speaking through her manager.

She says that although she has been playing for India since she was 15, she still treats every match as if it's her first. And she hopes that her time at Rangers will "motivate the next generation of [Indian] players".

She made history on 29 January, when Rangers announced they had signed her. While goalkeeper Aditi Chouhan had a stint with West Ham United in 2015, Bala Devi is the first to sign a professional contract.

She has scored 52 goals in 58 appearances for her country, and has scored more than 100 domestic goals.

A girl from Manipur

Bala Devi was born and grew up in the north-eastern state of Manipur where football is deeply loved and passionately played.

The state's women's team has won 20 of the 25 national championships that have been held since 1991.

"For us in Manipur, luckily, girls are encouraged when they play sports," Bala Devi said. "We did face comments at times, but it only made me want to prove myself."

She started playing sports at an early age because because it runs in the family. She also played tennis and handball.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Bala Devi was 15 when she started playing for India

She was inspired to play football because of her father, who used to play as a hobby.

"I really liked the sport. I used to play with local boys every day. And I used to beat them!"

She was just 11 when she joined a local girl's football club, ICSA, and began playing district-level matches.

Growing up, she says, she admired Brazilian greats such as Ronaldo and Ronaldinho. Her current favourites? Midfielder and co-captain of the US women's national team, Megan Rapinoe, and among men, the Portuguese winger, Cristiano Ronaldo.

Closer home, she idolised Oinam Bembem Devi, a woman footballer from Manipur, known as the "Durga of Indian Football" - a reference to a fearless Hindu goddess.

In 2002, much to Bala Devi's delight, she got a chance to play alongside Bembem Devi in the national games: "I thought I'd never get to play with her!"

After a string of good performances, in 2005, she joined the under-17 Indian national team. She was 15.

The road to Rangers

There has been no looking back since then.

Her achievements earned her a job with the Manipur police in 2010. She has represented three different clubs in the Indian Women's League, including two seasons at the Manipur Police Sports Club. She was the league's top scorer for the past two seasons, and was also named Women's Player of the Year in 2015 and 2016.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
She's India's top scorer with 52 goals in 58 appearances

She was with the Manipur Police Sports Club when the Rangers came knocking. The coaches were impressed with her trial stint in November.

The historic deal was facilitated by Bangalore FC, which doesn't have a women's team but is in partnership with Rangers FC.

Bala Devi says she can't wait to start at Rangers - and she's thrilled to be wearing the number 10 jersey, the same number she wears for India.

She says she's not worried about being in a new country: "I eat everything. And I'm used to the weather as Manipur gets cold too.

"The only challenge I have is to do better," she adds.

A new era

Bala Devi hopes her time at Rangers will pave the way for more opportunities for women footballers in India.

She says interest in women's football has been growing across the world: "The last Women's World Cup was one of the most watched sports events."

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
The women's world cup final between USA and Netherlands broke viewership records

More than a billion people watched the tournament in France in 2019, according to Fifa's estimates. TV records were broken across the globe, including in France, the United States, Germany and China.

She hopes the Under-17 World Cup - which is being held in India this year - will draw more girls to football.

She dreams of "a strong league" in India where "lots of young girls play football".

Her advice to aspiring women footballers: "Aim for the sky."