"Football is the most beautiful game in the world," says the 'Durga' of Indian Football, Oinam Bembem Devi.
On Saturday, Bembem became the first Indian woman footballer, and the seventh overall to be selected for the prestigious Padma Shri Award.
Bembem says she was in Kolkata, on her way back from the Hero Indian Women's League in Bengaluru, when she got the confirmation call from the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports.
Talking to The Logical Indian, Bembem who made her national team debut at a tender age of 15, in 1995, recalls, "When I wasn't made the captain initially, I decided I am going to play my best game."
Bembem was the captain of the national side from 2003 and won three SAF Cup titles (2010, 2012, 2014) and two South Asian Games gold medals (2010, 2016).
She is also a two-time AIFF Women's Player of the Year (2001, 2013).
"In 2003, when I won the AIFF Women's Player of the Year for the second time, I realized I wanted to start preparing for the national awards."
An ambassador of Indian women's football for over two decades, she was honoured with the Arjuna Award by the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports, in 2017.
"My Padma Shri is what women's football in India is all about," she says.
"The initial stages weren't easy, my family had financial constraints. Back then, the government didn't do much for the athletes, I knew I had to go on though," Bembem tells.
Going back to her childhood, Bembem recollects that before she made a name through her escapades in football, she had chopped off her hair, pretended to be a boy to get a place in the boys' team at the local football club.
"When I was some nine years old I had changed my name to Bobo, Amko to play football with the boys. Had I mentioned that my name was Bembem they would have understood I was a girl, and not taken me in their team to play," she says.
In 1991, Bembem was asked by a senior player at the local club if she would like to play for the women's team. "There's a women's football team?" she remembers exclaiming at that moment.
"I was unaware of the sensation that football was, I participated in a tournament in Manipur, in 1991, that was the first time I saw brilliant players and I knew I had to work harder and get to a better place," she says.
"I only wanted to play good football," asserts Bembem.
Bembem is now a part of the elite club of Indian Footballers who had won the prestigious Padma Shri Award which includes Late Gostho Paul, Late Sailen Manna, Chuni Goswami, PK Banerjee, Bhaichung Bhutia and current Indian Men's National Team captain, Sunil Chhetri.
"It's an honour to be in the same club as the Late Gostho Paul, Late Sailen Manna, Chuni Goswami, PK Banerjee, Bhaichung Bhutia, and Sunil Chhetri. They are real legends, people whom I have heard about, and looked up to during my career," she says.
"This is just the beginning for women's football," she says referring that more women footballers will be joining the club in future.
Noting Bembem's contribution to sports even after hanging her boots, Kushal Das, General Secretary, AIFF, in his statement said, "Post-retirement Bembem has been transferring her knowledge as a coach, having to be part of Indian National age-group teams, and also as the club level. I wish her all the best for her professional and personal life."
"This recognition only motivates me for my future assignments, endeavours," Bembem says.
The All India Football Federation (AIFF) President, Praful Patel, tweeted to congratulate Bembem, "Congratulations! None deserve it more than Bembem Devi. She has been a role model for Indian Football and won so many laurels for India over the years. I hope more girls draw inspiration from her and take Indian Women's Football to greater heights."
Thanking the AIFF for their support and push, she says that it feels nice when one's contribution gets recognised.
She has been associated with the U-15 and U-16 National teams as an Assistant Coach and was also one of the Coaches for the U-17 Women's tournament in Kalyani.
"I thought I had the platform and skills. I decided I wanted to share it with the children, help them however I could, that is when I started coaching." Bembem says.
She says that her message for the upcoming players would be to focus on the game and work hard.
"If you want to play football, and you know you are good, don't let anything stop you. Discipline is most important," she adds.
With India hosting the FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup this year, Bembem expects 'more development at the grassroots and the level of women's football in India.'
"I saw an excellent performance at the tri-nation tournament last month. Our players put up a good fight, if they work hard in the run-up to the world cup, they will make India proud."
Sports communities from all over the country took to Twitter to congratulate Bembem.
Congratulations Legend BemBem Devi for being honoured with Padma shri pic.twitter.com/fjfTUdRDwK— Mumbai Girls Football (@mumbaigirlsftbl) January 26, 2020
Congratulations BemBem Devi for being honoured with Padma shri!!#Womensfootball #Honoured #PadmaSri #Footballer #Indoanfootball #IWL #AIFF #TravancoreRoyals #NammudeClub #TRFC #FansOwnedClub #Trivandrum #kerala🌴 @… https://t.co/t64HmOmwLs— Travancore Royals FC (@travancoreroyls) January 27, 2020