The first women footballer from India to sign a professional contract with a foreign football club, Bala Devi says that the training levels at Rangers FC is higher than that on India and she is trying to fit in the environment.
Bala told ANI, “The girls have been really supportive. Most of them are from other countries so it’s a very welcoming and warm environment.”
Devi signed an 18-month contract with Scotland’s club Ranger FC and became the first Asian International to join the club. “The level, of course, is much higher than India and it’s a year-long league so it’s very good to be playing in this environment. The movement off the ball, passing speed and physical play is at a much higher level but I am adjusting,” Bala Devi told ANI.
She clarifies that food is not a problem for her as she lives with players from Canada, Venezuela, France and Northern Ireland and all have different types of food and taste but also keep the football diet in mind whenever they eat.“The club is very supportive and training is almost every day (just like the men’s team) and the coach and staff always help out with the language, support to get nutrition, gym schedules so we are pretty much set.”
The 30-year-old footballer from Manipur said that the level is way higher here and since it is a year-long league, it is better to be playing here. She added, “The club is very supportive and training is almost every day (just like the men’s team) and the coach and staff always help out with the language, support to get nutrition, gym schedules so we are pretty much set.”
After playing in India for such a long time, going there and looking at the facilities that were provided, especially for the women’s team, she was surprised.
“Do you have Indian spices?” she asked the cashier of a Scottish grocery store in broken English.
“Kaunsa spice chahiye aapko? (Which spice would you like?)”
The storekeeper, who guessed that the customer is an Indian, asked back in Hindi.
“Haldi,” she said as her face lit up instantly.
Besides her family and friends at the other end of the phone, this was the first time she had listened to someone speaking Hindi since arriving in Glasgow two months back in January.
The storekeeper, a Punjabi-origin woman, did not know that her customer was Ngangom Bala Devi, India’s most prolific goal-scorer and current No. 10 of Rangers Women’s Football Club.
As she handed over the turmeric powder to Bala, they talked more in Hindi. She was excited to find a store that sells Indian spices.
“I love cooking and was struggling to find the ingredients,” Bala said.
“Usually I eat from the cafeteria at our training ground. But now it’s international break and we don’t have training for four days. That’s why I thought I will cook something,” she added.
Bala stays with four of her teammates in a large house near their training ground. Although it has only been two months, Glasgow has already taken a special place in her heart.
“I absolutely love this city. The people here support me a lot. And I am amused to see their discipline. They are family-first people, but at the same time they give 110 percent in their work,” Bala said.
“And most of them give a lot of importance to fitness. Every morning I go running in a park near my house, and I can see lots of people jogging there. Most of them, even the elderly, are fitter than me. I hope Indians also follow this one day and give more importance to our health,” she added.
Bala, who has scored 52 goals in 58 appearances for India, had a lot of inhibitions when she arrived at Rangers.
The language barrier was the worst. Born and brought up in a small village in Manipur, the 31-year-old spoke only Manipuri and Hindi.
“Forget English, even my Hindi is terrible,” she chuckled.
But her coaches and teammates at Rangers have been doing their best to make her feel at home since arriving in Glasgow in January.
“I realised soon that I don’t have to be scared. The people here are really friendly. They help each other a lot. And football has only one language everywhere. I pass when they say ‘pass,’ and I turn when they say ‘turn,’” Bala said.
However, there has been a huge change in the way she trains since joining the Scottish club. Unlike the Indian system, the clubs in Europe follow short but high-intense training regimes.
“In India, we train for 90 minutes or two hours, but it won’t be intense. But here we do 45-minute sessions that are extremely exhausting. It’s a huge learning experience,” she said.
With the added responsibility of wearing the No. 10 shirt, Bala is on a mission to score a lot of goals for Rangers.
She has started two games — one each in the league and the domestic cup — and came off the bench in another cup tie. She has already made her mark by assisting a goal in the first game she started.
Still adapting to the system, she hopes she can help Rangers win trophies.
“I was so excited when I got the No. 10 shirt here. It motivates me a lot. But it also puts a lot of pressure as I have to justify their belief in me. Now I am working hard to step up my game and play at the highest level.”
But with the coronavirus outbreak affecting the sporting world, Scotland suspended all leagues until further notice. All domestic professional and grassroots football under the jurisdiction of the Sottish FA is suspended, which includes the Scottish Women’s League, and Rangers has also told its players there will be no training at the club until further notice. The players are expected to keep themselves fit until the season restarts. Bala Devi plans to continue her workout and personal training during the off time.
“We trained together for two days after the international break. We were told today [on March 13] that the league has been postponed,” she said.
A childhood fan of Liverpool, Bala has more reasons to be happy at Rangers. The women’s team attended one of the games of the Rangers men’s team, where she saw their manager Steven Gerrard, the Liverpool legend and one of her idols.
“I haven’t gotten to talk to him yet. But I am hoping he will come and give us a talk soon. I am so inspired by just watching him stand by the line and give instructions,” she said.
Although her life at Rangers has only started, Bala believes her transfer is only the start of a very bright future for India women’s team.
“All eyes will be on them when India hosts the under-17 women’s World Cup this year,” Bala said.
“There was a huge exposure for the tournament when the under-17 men’s World Cup was held in India in 2017. Now there is an opportunity for women’s football as well. A lot of doors will open if our girls perform well at the tournament.”
Placed 57th in the world, the Indian senior women are comparatively better than their male counterparts in the FIFA rankings.
“What we need to do is organise more games for our women’s team. We have already secured draws against Vietnam and Uzbekistan. We need to play more games against bigger teams and get more exposure. Our future will be bright,” Bala added.
Star striker Bala Devi says India will have to build on the legacy of hosting the women's U-17 World Cup and Asian Cup if the country is to raise its football standards by a few notches.
The 30-year-old senior national team trailblazer is also hoping for an Indian Super League-style women's league in the near future.
India will host the FIFA U-17 World Cup in February-March next year and then organise the Asian Cup in 2022.
"I think if a few youngsters do well in the U-17 World Cup, they might be called up for the senior team camps as well, so this would be a good transition. These two years will be very exciting for Indian football, but I think the follow-up is even more important," Devi told PTI in an interview.
"We need to have a good league and a legacy after these two landmark events. Girls need to play full time in schools, colleges, academies and finally in fully professional or semi-professional teams.
"I am hoping for an ISL-type scenario for women's football in future," Devi added from Scotland, where she is currently based.
Devi, who has played more than 40 matches for the country since 2005, is the first Indian woman footballer to ply trade in a top-flight professional league in Europe. She currently plays for Rangers in the Scottish Premier League.
The league though stands suspended since March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. She had featured in two matches before the suspension of the league.
She said the impact of hosting the 2022 Asian Cup will be huge and the country must cash on it.
"We do not get much exposure but with this tournament (Asian Cup), hopefully, we can get a lot of interest in women's football in India. I think for the country, it's a huge step but we can follow it up with even more regular tournaments in the future.
"We never know, but hopefully, we will host the FIFA Women's World Cup someday. I hope clubs do follow and invest in women's football after this tournament so we have full-time women's professional players in India," said the player from Manipur.
Asked about India's chances in the tournament, she said, "Personally, I am very excited about this opportunity to play at home in the biggest tournament at Asian level.
"But, it's difficult to say how we will perform in this tournament. Let's hope we put in a lot of good practice and play a lot of matches ahead of the tournament and then you never know with home support we could get a few favourable results."
India has done well in the past in the women's Asian Cup, with two runners-up and one third-place finish, but this will be the country's first participation since 2003.
"In the past, we did not get much access to women's football on television so I don't really know what the level was. Right now, we get to see some matches and we know that Japan, Australia, South Korea are all very strong nations in women's football and do well at the World Cup level as well.
"Right now, we cannot compare with them. Japan has won the women's World Cup in 2011 and just to play with them would be great exposure for us."
Indian women's football team forward Bala Devi has joined a charity initiative to raise funds for child labourers who have been affected by the coronavirus pandemic.
The 30-year-old striker has been roped in for the initiative by the non-governmental organisation CRY (Child Rights and You). All proceeds from the initiative will go to help provide the children education and amenities.
“We have always been struggling with child labour...With the pandemic leading to loss of jobs, this will only rise making more children give up their dream of education or playing,” Devi told PTI from her base in Scotland.
“I truly believe every child should have the opportunity to fulfil their dreams and always get a chance at education - this is what has inspired me to take up this initiative. I do not have a real life incident but we know that child labour is prevalent around the country,” she added.
Devi, who has played more than 50 international matches since 2005, is the the first Indian woman footballer to ply her trade in a top-flight professional league in Europe. She plays for Rangers in the Scottish Premier League.
The league is currently suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic. She had featured in two matches before the suspension of the league.
She added that celebrities working for social causes brings in more response from the society as a whole.
”...being a recognised face helps us to reach out to even more people. The more people joining hands will lead to better resources to help these children,” she said.