“Being a doctor or being a scientist I would be recognised by thousands of people. But being a footballer, I’m followed by millions.”
It’s a statement that leaves you wondering what it must feel like to have over a billion of your countrymen and women watch your every move from thousands of miles away but for Rangers forward Bala Devi it is a sentence said with an authority of understanding around what life has pushed her way, or more accurately, the life she has pulled towards her.
Speaking through a combination of her own words and a translator via Zoom it quickly becomes apparent that her arrival in Scotland at the start of last year had been no accident or quirk of circumstance but just another step in a football career driven by a passion for the game, “Ever since I thought about what I wanted to do as a career, as early as the sixth grade, I wanted to play football.”
It’s easy to see where it all began with football and its influence on her omnipresent from an early age. Her father played, as did her brother and her youth was often spent kicking whatever could be made into a ball around with the local boys in her home state of Manipur. Tucked away in the far north eastern corner of India commuting to and from the big cities of Delhi, Bangalore and Mumbai is far easier done by air than it is to travel by road around neighbouring Bangladesh.
“Manipur is not a very well populated place but it is very encouraging towards sports”, she explains, as I grasp at the opportunity to hear details about a faraway land at a time where I remain firmly stuck at home. “Lots of sportspeople have come from there. You have six or seven of the men’s national team and maybe eleven of the current women’s national team. We also have a world champion boxer as well as national hockey players, archers and shooters.”
India’s most recognisable sporting obsession, cricket, barely registers in her home state and even with the continued absence of a team from the region in the lucrative Indian Super League games between village sides still regularly attract between 4-5,000 spectators. Despite that passion the story for aspiring female footballers in the country during Devi’s adolescence remains all too familiar. “From a young age I was mainly just training with the men’s teams because there was no proper facilities or women’s coaching. The fields we played on didn’t have grass on them, they were just mud fields. I was the scorer of goals in the village and I was the best player amongst all of them, irrespective of boys and girls.”
Those goals didn’t go unnoticed when a Manipuri member of the Indian national team returned home, helping the young Bala improve her technique on the field as the on screen performances of Ronaldo at the 2002 World Cup spurred her on off it. Her rapidly developing talents attracted the attention of the Manipur State Police side and having first made her senior debut aged just 12, playing for multiple clubs along the way, she was signed up at the age of 20. A move that provided her with the facilities she had long desired along with a back-up career in the unlikely event that things were not to fall her way.
She continued to thrive as her ascent through the youth ranks of the national side allowed her to focus more on football and less on her role within the force. In 2015 it looked as if her chance to move to Europe had come but a protracted switch to Spain never materialised. She would eventually arrive in Spain four years later, this time as part of the first Indian national side to tour Europe and competed against sides from the Spanish Primera as well the Spanish U19’s, Mauritania and Bolivia. It was an experience that would sharpen her focus, “I thought I can easily play at this level. I was already 29 and so I discussed with somebody about the idea of playing in Europe”. Enter Rangers.
At the end of the 2019 season the Glasgow side were coming off the back of another season entrenched in the SWPL1 mid-table, a status quo that was becoming increasing unsustainable for a side that bills itself as the most successful in the world. Something had to change, and in December 2019 it did with the announcement that Rangers were to become the first full-time women’s side in Scotland. That news brought an intense recruitment drive and mass restructuring with the newly appointed Women and Girls Football Manger, and former first team coach, Amy McDonald at the fore. It would be a revolution that would see Devi arrive at Auchenhowie on trial in a move facilitated by an arrangement between the Light Blues and Indian side Bengaluru FC, although the latter had no affiliation to India’s captain at the time.
“I was very nervous,” recalls Devi, “It was the first time an Indian girl had gone for a club trial and I didn’t want to not make it because I was known as the best footballer in the country. Obviously the standard was something I had never seen so my national team manager had shown me a few videos of different European leagues. I could see that it was more physical, more technical when compared to playing in India and there is a lot more movement without the ball. That first day I had to adjust as it was very different from what I had ever played. But I felt quite confident because I felt I was good enough as I’m comfortable with the ball, but a lot of the technical play I’m still getting used to now.”
The level of competition for places has been another learning curve, “In India, there are two or three players that are really good [in a team] and then the rest, not so good, so the better ones will always be running with the ball with the others not being able to support as much.”
She has risen to the challenge though and gone on to feature six times. In December she became the first Indian to score in the top tier of any league in Europe during her side’s 9-0 demolition of Motherwell. “I was obviously very happy because a lot of people back home in India are following what I do here but I was also so excited to see that it generated a bit of interest in the U.K. itself and with the Rangers fans.”
It was a joy shared by teammates who have provided much needed camaraderie at a time when the 31-year-old has been unable to return home but support has come from beyond the dressing room too. She has made friends with a local Indian family who stay nearby, a friendship that sees them regularly exchanging tastes of home and a poke of fish and chips has become a firm local favourite. When I ask what she’s missed most over the past year football once again comes to the fore, “Obviously I’ve missed my family but I have also missed a couple of international friendlies and I’ll miss the next two because of visa and quarantine restraints [it has been over a year since she has last been able to add to her record goal haul for her country]. I’m actually really happy here because of the high levels of training, facilities and nutrition. it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity.“
An opportunity that she hopes will be afforded to future generations of Indian girls and along with being an ambassador for CRY (Children Rights and You) a non-governmental organisation that aims to uplift children from underprivileged backgrounds her DMs always remain open, “I chat to a lot of kids through WhatsApp and Instagram who are asking for advice. I’ve not been back for 15 months now but when I do go back in the summer I’ll hopefully get to meet some of them, to speak to them and to maybe do a workshop for them.” She continues, “I’ve had a lot more exposure now compared to when I started playing but because of social media, the message is out a lot more so whenever I do well people get to know me a little bit more and they want to interact with me as they have more access than they would have had in the past.”
It’s not just future stars that she has been making connections with though as politicians often get in contact to offer their support and as is the trend across the globe women’s football is a growth industry that India is beginning to awaken too. Interest is set to be heightened further by the arrival of both the rearranged U17 Women’s World Cup and the Asian Cup in 2022. “This tournament (the Asian Cup) is the first time the team will perform on national television. We will have all eyes on the women’s team when normally games are only shown on really small channels.” Bala’s journey has seen her become the face for those games.
Throughout our conversation she seems comfortable with the weight of expectation that would be a burden to so many others but she retains an understanding of the impact she could have on the growth of the game back home,“If I do well, then future generations can also look at moving abroad and playing. So there is a lot of pressure but that comes from fans and other players rather than on myself.”
As for playing football, “It’s just been a dream, a dream to play football. My whole career has been perfect. I just want to improve on that and play more abroad and hopefully inspire other generations to play on in the game. Hopefully in thirty years time there will be many Indians playing abroad and hopefully I will have just been the first and not the last.”
The task of inspiring a generation sounds daunting but for Bala Devi it’s just another day.
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