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Loitongbam Ashalata Devi: Inspiring the new generation of Indian footballers

In life and in sport, Indian women's football team captain Loitongbam Ashalata Devi has relentlessly pursued her dreams, despite the challenges, and wants to inspire more girls to play the game

Kunal Purandare
Published: Oct 17, 2022 01:05:44 PM IST
Updated: Oct 17, 2022 01:29:12 PM IST

Loitongbam Ashalata Devi: Inspiring the new generation of Indian footballersLoitongbam Ashalata Devi says it takes a lot of hard work to maintain success Image: Courtesy AIFF
 
Loitongbam Ashalata Devi shed copious tears on the ground when the under-17 squad for the national football team was announced in 2008. It was a bittersweet moment for the girl from Imphal, Manipur. After years of toil, struggle and a battle against family pressure to give up the game that she had taken a liking to, she was a step closer to representing India. Her emotions, though, had less to do with being overwhelmed about her own selection. The teenager felt bad that some of the players—from different states across the country—with whom she had shared some priceless moments during a three-month camp prior to the announcement had not made the cut. “I did not know that feeling… I was happy as well as sad,” says Loitongbam.
 

The pain of being deprived of something you feverishly wish for was something she could relate to. In the mid-noughties, when she was in class seven, she saw some boys play football near her house. She hadn’t seen any girl do the same. At Ramananda High School, where she studied, there was a tournament for boys, but none for girls.

So, the youngster requested her teacher to organise one. She formed a team, as advised, and eventually played against the boys—wearing a crepe bandage-like anklet, not studs, that her uncle had bought for ₹25. Their team won with Loitongbam scoring during the penalty shootout along with a few others. “I was elated. The fact that I was one of those who scored made me delirious… that’s when I realised that I have never been so happy. And I decided to play the sport,” she says about her first experience of the game.

Loitongbam Ashalata Devi: Inspiring the new generation of Indian footballersAt home, however, her family was vehemently opposed to the idea of their daughter playing football. “My mother beat me a lot after that game,” recalls Loitongbam, adding that she stopped playing for a couple of months due to the fear of getting thrashed. The separation, though, became difficult to digest and she resumed playing the sport without informing her mother. “But she got to know where I was after school and beat me up again,” reminisces the captain of the Indian women’s football team and someone regarded as one of the best defenders in the game today. Upon realising that it was futile to stop her adamant daughter, her mother gave up, but with a strict caveat. “She said don’t ask for money from me for your studs, jersey… and even if I did, I did not get any,” says the 29-year-old whose paternal uncle, who was secretary at a sports club nearby, supported her and enrolled her with a local club.

The value of money and time was something that Loitongbam, one of six siblings, understood at a young age. After her farmer father passed away in 2011, running the house became a challenge. Three of her sisters were studying in college that was some distance away and Loitongbam herself needed money to travel—the football ground was an hour-and-a-half away from home—for practice. Though her uncle had ensured a slow patch-up between mother and daughter over playing football, the financial strain was too much for the housewife to handle. She reiterated that her daughter give up the game, study well and get a job to support the family.

Their meagre savings were not enough to meet the compounding expenses. So, the mother would make Manipur’s traditional dress, Rani phee, and sell that for ₹6,000 to ₹7,000 apiece. Today, it sells for ₹17,000 to ₹18,000. “I would help her make that dress even when I was playing,” says Loitongbam and explains that it would take a month to make two such dresses. That money, too, was proving to be insufficient. So, her mother started selling fruits and vegetables in the market. “We also sold rice from our field and pineapples from the farm,” continues the star from the Northeast, which produces some of the best football talent in the country.

“Despite the tough times, Loitongbam did not put her game on the back burner. She practised with zeal and tackled every obstacle that came her way. There were times when she would miss practice if she did not get the bus—running at intervals as long as an hour—to take her to the ground. It would upset her deeply. To eliminate such a possibility, she would ride atop forest department trucks to the venue. These vehicles would be parked near her house to pay taxes. Her uncles used to work there and the youngster often requested them to put in a word to allow her to travel.

It was only half the battle won though. For, at times, practice would get cancelled as the ground would be unconducive for training, especially during the rains. “I used to feel bad that I wasted so much time travelling. So, I would not return without doing something—fitness drills, warm-ups with the ball or basic dribbling,” says Loitongbam. “The others didn’t realise how much we had to fight for the money to travel. One of my friends commented, ‘For once, come to practice without crying’. My mother used to shout at me before leaving home and I would always cry. Such experiences made me realise the importance of time and money.”

The prevailing circumstances also made her realise that she could not depend on her mother for money. It was time to do something on her own. In 2012-13, after having represented the country, Loitongbam shifted to Delhi and played for a club there. She wasn’t paid for it. But she would coach at the Modern School and take physical training classes in another educational institute before practising at the Jasola academy in the evening. Later, she got a job with Indian Railways.

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Football was merely a passion, not a career choice, for Loitongbam till she was selected for the under-17 Indian team. It was only after she travelled with the squad to Malaysia, stayed in a five-star hotel and saw the huge ground there did she realise that her life was going to turn for the better in the ensuing years. She was later selected for the Indian women’s football team in 2011 and is now the captain.

Loitongbam got leadership responsibility for the first time in the 2018 Olympic qualifier round. It made her jittery as the team comprised several seniors. “I could not believe it… I was numb,” she says. “I kept wondering how will I handle it, but I got a lot of support from everyone. I consider myself lucky that I played under Oinam Bembem Devi and learnt how to lead. I also learnt from the likes of Ngangom Bala Devi, Sasmita Mallik and Manpreet Kaur. I studied how they are with the players, on and off the field. That support made me feel at ease and gave me confidence.”

Loitongbam Ashalata Devi: Inspiring the new generation of Indian footballersIndia at the opening game of the Women’s International Football tournament at the Amazon Arena in Manaus, Brazil, in November 2021

She has only gone from strength to strength since then. For the 2018-19 season, Loitongbam was the All India Football Federation’s (AIFF) Women’s Player of the Year. In 2019, she became the first Indian player, male or female, to be nominated for AFC Footballer of the Year. Prior to that, in 2015, she became the second Indian to play for a club outside India, after Bembem Devi, when she signed for the Dhivehi Women’s Premier League franchise New Radiant WSC.  

India’s goalkeeper Aditi Chauhan has known Loitongbam for more than a decade and describes her as “one of the best defenders that she has seen in India and a great leader”. “One of the best skills that she has as a captain are her people skills. She understands other people, and communicates with them. That’s what drives everyone to her… everyone respects her. She is always available to listen,” she says. 

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Thomas Lennart Dennerby, head coach of the Indian women’s football team, agrees. “She is a respected skipper… a role model. Asha is good at reading the game and in positioning. She is fast and has a very good touch on the ball—both in the shorter passes and longer ones. Defensively, she is superb in one-on-one situations,” he says. Since he took over as coach in August 2021, the Swede says Loitongbam has constantly improved her game and fitness levels. “I hope she is ready to play for India for a couple of years more,” he adds.   

A lot has changed for girls playing the sport since Loitongbam began her journey. Today, tournaments such as the Indian Women’s League (IWL) present plenty of opportunities to youngsters and give them great exposure. “These leagues are important,” says Loitongbam, captain of Kerala Gokulam in IWL. In the absence of these tournaments, she continues, players get to play only one big tournament in a year. There’s a gap between competitive matches and that makes them rusty. “To get to play matches every month is beneficial. No matter how much we practice, if we don’t play competitive matches, we’ll get stagnated,” she says, but adds that while the AIFF is doing its bit, the leagues require greater support from sponsors, NGOs and the organising committees to make them popular.

Loitongbam Ashalata Devi: Inspiring the new generation of Indian footballers

She rues that pay parity is an issue and says it calls for greater attention from stakeholders who run the game. “There should be equal opportunities and only then there will be equal pay. The men who are playing at my level are paid a lot more. That must change,” she emphasises.
 
The Fifa Under-17 Women’s World Cup, scheduled to be played in India from October 11 to 30, will bring in a lot of positive changes, believes Loitongbam. “It will tell parents about the heights women’s football has scaled. It will encourage girls to take up the sport… they will feel motivated. Such things did not happen earlier. We hosted AFC too,” she says.  

Kerala Gokulam’s coach Priya PV says there is no drop in intensity whenever Loitongbam plays for the club. She is hardworking, dedicated and even practices as if she is playing a match. “Her biggest quality is that she can adapt her game depending on the opposition. She is a highly experienced player and that helps when it comes to defence. She is cool, calm and composed. Asha is a true role model,” says the coach, who guided the club to the IWL title in 2020 and 2021. “I have known her from her early days and seen her improve over the years. She wanted to play like her seniors and learnt from them… today, the juniors want to play like her. She is a lovely person, who guides youngsters and motivates even the junior-most players with a lot of care.” Concurs Chauhan, her Gokulum Kerala teammate. “I have seen her shape a lot of other defenders, the younger ones, and help them become better players. She understands people and their needs, and has a great way of helping them out. She always puts other people’s needs above hers.”

Loitongbam Ashalata Devi: Inspiring the new generation of Indian footballersTeam India, led by Ashalata Devi (first row, extreme right), at the AFC Women’s Asian Cup

The role model tag makes her happy, but Loitongbam does not want to sit on her laurels. “I feel I need to do a lot more and work hard. It’s not right to come to this level and feel satisfied. I should do a lot more to motivate young girls,” says the skipper, who is going to be glued to the television during the upcoming Fifa World Cup. “I am going to see all the matches. And those of the US, Japan and Spain in particular.”

Apart from her love for sport, Loitongbam loves cooking—traditional Manipuri food, chicken, and fish. In fact, she reveals, that on tours, she sometimes tells the hotel staff that she’ll take over the kitchen and makes food for everyone. “I love shopping too, even if it’s for the kitchen or just groceries,” she says.  
Chauhan says Loitongbam has a pure heart, with great intentions. “She is a treasure of a human being. She might not be talented off the field in terms of dancing or singing or entertainment. But she likes to have fun with the team and in other social settings.”

Also read: Women footballers to now get paid as much as men in the US

Loitongbam wants to play for some more years and does not know what she’ll do if she does not play football. “I don’t want to get into coaching, but get into some technical committee. Or I’ll become a trainer in the gym. But I haven’t thought about life after sport. I love playing golf too… I have three to four ideas,” she says.
 
The struggle, unlike her formative years, is of a different kind now. “I have got a lot of success, but I find it difficult to maintain that success,” she says.

Loitongbam currently works for Indian Railways in Bihar and complaints that there are no good facilities there—either physios or training centres. As office superintendent, she is in a 330-day special cell where she has to practice. “My office timings are from 10.30 am to 6 pm. I train before that. After office, I go to the gym. There’s a lot of hard work required to maintain success. To take that success ahead is very difficult. But those who play with heart, want to achieve something and have a steely resolve try to keep things easy,” says Loitongbam.

When she was playing for a local club, her studies were interrupted for a couple of years. Her father would scold her, saying that if she stopped studying, she won’t get a job. So, she resumed her education and completed her graduation in Arts.   

As a player and in life, she has never lost sight of her goals. 

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(This story appears in the 21 October, 2022 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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