From Manipur to Scotland – ‘Ranger’ Bala Devi makes history5 min read
January 22 marked a watershed moment in the history of Indian women’s football as national team striker Ngangom Bala Devi from Manipur earned the illustrious number 10 jersey of Scottish giants Rangers Football Club, after she signed an 18-month deal with them, becoming the first woman footballer in India to have a professional contract with an overseas club, also becoming the Rangers’ first Asian footballer, adding another feather to her cap.
She took to the field along with her elder brother in Irengbam, a small village near Imphal. Starting off as a player at local club Iksha, Devi enjoyed stints at various Imphal based clubs, before joining Manipur Police, one of the premier women’s clubs in the country.
Bala Devi was just 15 when she participated in her first international tournament and has represented the nation in numerous international ties ever since – captaining the side on many occasions as well. The Manipuri has also been named All India Football Federation (AIFF) Women’s Player of the Year for two consecutive years in 2014 and 2015.
With 52 goals in 58 appearances for the national team and over 100 goals from 102 games at the domestic level, the National Games gold medallist has emerged as the current top-scorer for India. She has also been the highest scorer in the Indian Women’s League (IWL) for the past two seasons.
The Manipuri striker, who is also the top international goal scorer in the South Asian region, is now set to play in the Scottish Women’s Premier League 1, which is the premier division for women’s football in Scotland. The league runs from February to November, with eight teams taking part this season.
“To play my football in Europe with one of the biggest clubs in the world is something I could never have dreamt of,” said a joyous Bala Devi. There is no doubt that Rangers FC will prove to be a pivotal movement, giving a breakthrough to her dreams.
Rangers Football Club is a Scottish professional football club based in Glasgow. Rangers Women have been one of the strongest clubs to compete in the Scottish Women’s Premier League and the Scottish Cup.
It was first in 2011 that current Indian men’s team captain Sunil Chettri and Mizo striker Jeje Lalpekhlua travelled to Glasgow for trials at Rangers FC, which ended on a disappointing note for the duo. Almost a decade later, Bala, rightly nicknamed ‘goal machine’ managed to impress the Scottish giants to pose with her new jersey.
Her journey to Rangers FC goes back to November 2019, when she visited the Rangers facility in Glasgow for six days. Recalling the eventful trials, the forward remarked, “I scored twice in one of the games we played, among the players at Rangers during my trial.”
Amy McDonald, women’s and girls’ football manager at Rangers FC exclaimed, “We are thrilled to welcome Bala to Rangers. She will provide us with an attacking threat and a versatility that we can utilise to our benefit going into the 2020 season. She is already a role model for girls across India and they will now be able to see her travel across the world to become a professional footballer.”
Rangers’ head of academy Craig Mulholland also welcomed the striker to the family. The club’s ambassador Mark Hateley told media that he feels she will be the icing on the cake as she comes with immense experience.
Bala, who turns 30 today, is amongst the 14 praise-worthy players the club has signed the contract with. Before Bala, a few other Indian women footballers have played for European clubs, but Bala is the first to grab a professional contract at a top division club.
The journey to making it to this level wasn’t a cakewalk. Initially, the Manipuri striker did not fulfill the eligibility criteria to play in the United Kingdom, but she was backed by the All India Football Federation (AIFF) and her trials were facilitated by the Indian Super League club Bengaluru FC.
The challenges for the Manipuri, however, do not end here as the onus will now be on her to show that she is made for the big leagues. “They have different body structures and fitness levels, but I am sure I will give my best to do well,” she affirms.
Bala’s move is eminently significant at a personal level, but it is simultaneously expected to have a larger impact on the women’s football ecosystem in India which is still at a nascent stage despite its long history.
While few states like Manipur have multiple district-level leagues, most states lack the required infrastructure and grassroots support. Even the Indian Women’s League currently runs for just three weeks.
“If you have the passion and if you are ready to work hard, you can achieve anything in life. Anyone can become a professional football player regardless of gender. More and more women should be encouraged to play football in India. I hope my move will inspire more women’s footballers and promote the game in India.” Said a proud Bala Devi, when asked what she wished to tell young footballing aspirants.
This has pioneered an entirely new and opportunistic realm for women’s football in India. Especially with India set to host the FIFA 2020 U-17 Women’s World Cup in November, it serves as a massive boost to the young women of the country.
Featured Image Courtesy: Twitter – Indian Football Team (@IndianFootball)
Edited by: Tarush Dhume