Nongmaithem Ratanbala Devi's tale of grit and sweat

Nongmaithem Ratanbala Devi's tale of grit and sweat

Nongmaithem Ratanbala Devi rattles out the number of countries she has visited while playing for the Indian national team.

Vietnam, Jordan, Spain, Hong Kong, Myanmar, Uzbekistan, Korea, Turkey...

Nongmaithem Ratanbala Devi rattles out the number of countries she has visited while playing for the Indian national team. The attacker pauses after a while, wonders aloud if she had missed out on any before breaking into a huge smile. 

It's a number that's probably mind-boggling for the 25-year old, far more than what she could have hoped for when she was kicking about with the boys in her village. After all, that's where it all started. A plot of empty land and a desire to play football.

"I used to play with the boys in my village, I was probably 13 at that time," she says. "I loved playing with the boys. No girls in my village played, I was the only one. There was a referee in my neighbourhood who saw me play and asked me if I liked playing football. I played for two years in his club. Then I played in Sports Authority of India for a year and then came to KRYPHSA."

She is still playing for KRYPSHA and is fresh off scoring two goals against defending champions, fellow contenders and her previous team Sethu FC, with whom she won the title last year, in the ongoing Indian Women's League. She had seven goals in as many appearances for the Tamil Nadu team. This year, however, having qualified through the Manipur league with her childhood club, the focus is to bring the title to her neck of the woods.

As she sits, relaxed at the Bangalore Football Stadium, and narrates her story, there is a sense of detached amusement. She laughs with guilt as talks of her and Indian superstar Ngangom Bala Devi being the two who missed their penalty kicks in the semifinal loss to Rising Student in the IWL two years ago which knocked them out of the competition and opens up about her experiences playing football for the country. The learning curve in international football, she says, has been immense and beneficial. She does it all with an endearing nonchalance to her tone. 

Perhaps she has her upbringing to thank for it. Born into a humble household with two sisters and a brother, it was not an easy journey for Ratanbala Devi.

"My father is a driver, he transports mirrors to the stores to make a meagre earning. The vehicle belonged to the shop too. My mother is a worker in anganvadi," she says. "There were, of course, money issues when I started out to play. But they always supported because they saw how much I loved playing. My uncle was a football player too and he played a big part also. He is now in Nagaland."

Her daily routine included leaving the house at 5.00 am, cycling 20 minutes to the bus stop and taking the bus for over an hour to get to the training centre. "I used to sleep to and fro in the bus," she laughs. To reduce the financial burden, she worked her socks off to get into SAI, which was a closer commute. Even something as small as change in commute was a big help. That was until KRYPHSA came calling to improve things better.

"Now I go for training in an Activa," she grins.

And she had help, in the form of her team-mate and fellow Indian international Grace Dangmei. It was her hand me down boots that kept Ratanbala Devi's dreams alive.

"We've been friends since we were six years old. Grace used to give me boots and socks and I played with that. I used to manage, tears and everything, and kept playing. She plays with me here and for the national team also. She's my closest friend here. Grace was a big support and all the while she was playing she supported me," says the former India U-19 star.

Now with 10 goals from 24 matches for the country, Ratanbala is a big name in Indian women's football. She scored a goal in India's Gold Cup campaign last year and followed that up with two more en route to India's SAFF Women's Championship win. While goals have come consistently, she's the happiest to have achieved her dream and repaid the faith of her loved ones.

"Now my family are happy. My aim was always to play national team and then get a job. So the first part I've achieved. Financial situation is better, because of me. I'm very happy because achieving my dreams was the reason for it. I'm trying to get a job for my brother now, he is a gym instructor. Then I want to improve the house," she says.