Closing The Gap

How Ngangom Bala Devi became India's first professional female soccer player

Ngangom Bala Devi

Ngangom Bala Devi's journey began in a small village in India, but the talented soccer player has broken down barriers to become the country's first fully professional female player.

Bala Devi recently signed to the women's team of Scottish soccer club Rangers F.C., despite growing up in the Indian state of Manipur where hardly any girls played the game.

The soccer player told CNBC via email that she started out by joining in boys' matches.

She said she was inspired by soccer legends including Argentina's Lionel Messi and Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo, but also by her family's enthusiasm for the sport — her father, a farmer by trade, enjoyed playing as a hobby.

Bala Devi's twin sister and elder brother also played but she was the only one in her family who pursued her passion and went on to play professionally.

She initially played for her state team but in 2005, at around age 15, played her first match for India's national women's team.

Bala Devi was the captain of the national team for five years and the top goal scorer, netting 52 goals in 58 matches since 2010. She has also been named the All India Football Federation (AIFF) Women's Player of the Year twice, in 2015 and 2016.

While playing at a national level, Bala Devi also held down a job as an officer for the Manipur police force and was part of its soccer club, representing it in both state and national level matches.

She said playing for the police force helped improve her soccer skills and increased her "exposure and experience" as a player.

Overcoming soccer's focus on men

The soccer star added that it was her family's support that enabled her success and eventually led to the deal with Rangers.

Bala Devi signed with the club on January 29 on an 18-month deal after a successful trial, Rangers said. The deal was facilitated by Rangers' partnership with Indian team Bengaluru F.C.

Goalkeeper Aditi Chauhan, who also played for India, was on the British women's team West Ham United for a time, but Bala Devi is said to be the first Indian female soccer player to sign a professional contract.

Bala Devi said that when she started out, one of the biggest challenges to overcome was the sport's focus on men, but that over the years the situation improved, with the introduction of a women's league in India.

She added that opportunities to play with higher-ranking international teams had helped provide her with more experience.

She believed that her success, and the fact that the 2020 Women's under-17s World Cup will take place in India, had set a precedent for young and upcoming female soccer players in the country to follow in her footsteps.

For these hopefuls, Bala Devi had the following advice: "Never give up and aim for the sky."

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