New Delhi: The country’s first woman footballer to be conferred with the prestigious Padma Shri, Oinam Bembem Devi on Friday rued the financial plight of fellow players and asked the corporate sector to chip in by sponsoring more clubs and tournaments.

Devi, who has played for India in 85 matches from 1995 to 2016, said if the big companies step up to sponsor clubs and tournaments, the women players will start getting good salaries, and they can have a career in football just like their male counterparts.

“The stake-holders, especially private companies, should take more interest in women’s football, so that women are encouraged and motivated to take the sport as a career just like the men,” said the 41-year-old who has also captained the national team during her career spanning 21 years.

“Women players do not get good money while playing for a club in the IWL (Indian Women’s League). They (club owners) will always tell the players to take less amount of money, say Rs 50,000 or Rs 60,000. This amount is peanuts actually,” she said during a virtual press conference.

The IWL was started by All India Football Federation in 2016 as the annual top domestic club competition for women. It was not held last season due to COVID-19 pandemic. The AIFF is hoping to hold matches in March-April next year for the 2021-2022 season.

The Padma awardee also rued the lack of tournaments in the women’s game and asked the corporate sector to come forward to sponsor more competitions.

“We have only IWL and senior national championships. Private companies could spend more money to sponsor more tournaments at the national and state level, so that the women players have more exposure and more earning avenues,” said Devi, who was the coach-cum-player of the 2017 IWL-winning Eastern Sporting Union of Manipur.

“This will also raise the level of football in the country and more girls will take up the sport as a career,” she added.

Devi received the Padma Shri for 2020 from President Ram Nath Kovind on Monday at the Rashtrapati Bhavan. She became the first Indian woman footballer and the seventh overall to receive the fourth highest civilian award of the country.

Devi, however, said that women’s football landscape has changed changed a lot since her playing days with so many exposure tours of the national team.

“In the last five-six years after my retirement, a lot of things have changed in Indian women’s football. In our times, we did not have branded kits like the present team has; we ravelled by bus or by train and not by air.”

“We did not have a lot of exposure trips like the present team is getting. We did not have many friendly matches. So a lot of changes have happened, thanks to the AIFF,” she said.

Preparing for the AFC Asian Cup early next year, the national women’s team recently played friendly matches against UAE, Bahrain, Tunisia and Chinese Taipei. The team will travel to Brazil later this month for a tournament, which will also see participation of Venezuela and Chile, along with the host country.

“Playing against higher ranked team gives you more confidence. I remembered playing matches in Germany in 1997 and we gained a lot of confidence. After that we played against Japan in China and we lost narrowly by 0-1 margin. Brazil are World Cup (2007) runners-up and ranked 7. Playing against them and also against Venezuela and Chile should give the girls a lot of confidence.”

Devi added, “Brazilian captain Marta is my idol and our girls are lucky to be getting a chance to play against some of the top players and teams.”

Asked if India has a chance to qualify for the knockout stage, Devi said, “We cannot say anything in that regard. In football, there is the luck factor and performance on the day. If we play well as a team, it is possible that we can qualify for the knock outs.”

“But one thing is sure that the girls will have to work hard. The coach and the staff will have to find out which team in strong and which is weak.”

The Indian team is clubbed with China, Chinese Taipei and Iran in Group A. The top two teams each from Groups A, B and C will qualify for the knockout stage. The two best third-placed teams across all the three groups will also qualify along with them.

India have beaten Chinese Taipei and Iran recently.

“We have to win matches with high margins (against weaker teams). We can be among top two teams (and qualify for the knock outs. We have to play as a team and not individually,” Devi added. 

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