Ashalata Devi Loitongbam with the IWL trophy | Gokulam Kerala

Triumph of the Blue Tigress: Ashalata Devi's Inspiring Football Journey

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There always has to be someone who paves the unconventional way, and that is the one who has the most difficult run. Loitongbam Ashalata Devi, born in Imphal, Manipur, was the first girl in her school to mention and initiate girls’ football, and today she is one of the best defenders and the best captain Indian football has seen. In a time when women’s football wasn’t as celebrated, she reached heights that women’s sports hadn't before. Ashalata’s story of sacrifice, perseverance, and triumph is the inspiration that women’s football needs today.

There has been an army of inspirational female football players who back Ashalata Devi’s success, and she is now inspiring other young Indian footballers to pursue their dreams fearlessly. Ashalata Devi has numerous titles to her name—the captain of the Indian National Women’s Football Team, the second Indian woman to play in a foreign club, the All India Football Federation’s player of the year 2019, and most recently, a crucial player for Gokulam Kerala FC who helped her team win the third successive Indian Women’s League title this year—but the titles that make her even more special are of a strong leader, a tactical player, and a brave woman.

Ashalata's journey to the national team

Ashalata was 13 when she saw the boys at school play football. The game looked intriguing to young Asha, but the school didn’t have a girls’ football team. She saw an opportunity and proposed it to her teacher. Since there was no team to start with, it was suggested she start pursuing her friends to form a team so they could participate in the school tournament.

The 22 girls played the first tournament with absolutely no knowledge of the game and yet pulled a draw. The match needed a winner to be decided in a penalty shootout, where Ashalata took the shot, and goal! "I couldn’t believe that I played the winning kick, and I fell in love with the game. My life took a turn that day, and I haven’t stopped thinking about or playing football since.", says the defender.

Ashalata brought a victory to her family, who were unaware of her interests and weren’t fond of them. Due to the financial crunch at home, the footballer’s mother wanted her to study, get a job to support the family, and get married. Loitongbam was one of the six children in the house, and the family was saving pennies to provide for everyone. "It was difficult for my mother to manage finances, and I would often get scolded and beaten up for wanting to play football. At one point I almost considered quitting, thinking I couldn’t pursue the game with no support from home.", recalls Ashalata Devi.

The odds were all against the rising star, but her passion kept her up at night, and she finally decided to pursue her dreams. All the judgements, doubts, and taunts remained in the background while she was making something of her own. With help from her uncle and the secretary at the sports club, Ashalata was enrolled in the local football club, where her initial journey began. Her struggles persisted, as she was constantly short on money and time to travel the 2-hour distance between her home and the sports club.

After a trial of blood, sweat, and tears, the momentous day finally arrived in 2008, when Ashalata Devi was selected for the Under-17 women’s national football team. All her hard work got her to the KRYPHSA Football Club, where she would train with professional footballers under coach Chaoba Devi. The 15-year-old, who played mostly for her passion, was now making a profession out of what she loved most. "Chaoba Devi was strict, and I now realise, the coach I needed the most. I had very little endurance and agility compared to the other team members and was constantly on the coach’s radar. Her vigorous training is the reason I am here today.", expresses Ashalata Devi. Later in 2011, Ashalata got selected to play for the senior women’s football team.

Bounce Back!

The struggle didn’t end for the player when, in 2016, Ashalata suffered a severe injury that required surgery, which most female footballers in the past rarely ever completely recovered from. The months of recovery were the toughest since she was juggling a job and rehab all by herself. Upon consulting the Indian football team’s former physiologist, she was called to Bangalore for further treatment. Her inability to simply walk without feeling tremendous pain made her believe that it was the end of her football career and her dreams.

"My mother found out about my injury after three months, and I told her I was quitting, expecting her to call me back home. Instead, my mother pushed me to not give up. Although my mother wasn’t a supporter at the beginning of my journey, her support at the lowest point in my life made me want to give it my all.", shares Ashalata Devi. After spending nine long months in recovery, the player was finally ready to return to the game stronger than ever.

In 2018, as a newly appointed captain, Ashalata became the first woman to lead the Indian Women’s Football Team past the first round of Olympic qualifiers. Soon, the new captain was faced with a challenge leading her team at the Under-20 SAFF Championship, hosted in Nepal. As India reached the finals against Nepal, the team realised that most of the crowd was in favour of Nepal’s team. "We had no support from the crowd except for the Indian officials and coaches, and this worried me, having such young players in our team. I encouraged my team to focus on the game and know that we support each other. We were all emotional because we were on our own, but it was also a proud moment since we were making history." The team brought the victory back home with a score of 3-1, and that was just the beginning.

Over the years, the resilient captain has brought pride by giving the team consistent wins in the SAFF Women’s Championship in the years 2012, 2014, 2016, and 2019. She was also one of the three nominees for the Asian Football Confederation Footballer of the Year award in 2019. Apart from being a captain of the national team, she also captains the Gokulam Kerala Football Club.

The future of women’s football

Female footballers like Loitongbam Aashalata Devi have had a huge impact on Indian football. The young girls of the country need stories like these, for no girl should feel that she needs to give up on her dreams due to a lack of opportunity.

Women’s football still struggles with disparities in terms of pay parity and equal treatment. The captain expresses, “I would often get embarrassed to mention I was playing football because women’s football wasn’t taken so seriously at that time and there was a lot of disparity in the treatment of the male and female footballers.” The only way to change is to support the women who play for our country and make it a sustainable career for them.

Loitongbam Ashalata Devi’s story is proof of what young girls and women can achieve with support and empowerment. She is inspiring a generation of female footballers in India and giving hope to many children coming from unsupported backgrounds. Today, along with her blue tigresses, she stands as an example to all the young sports aspirants and is carrying out a movement to change the way women’s sports are perceived in India.

Exclusively written for Giving for Good Foundation by Bhairavi Hiremath

Bhairavi Hiremath

Bhairavi Hiremath

With words as her medium and a diary full of scribbled ideas, she is usually found looking for ways to use her writing to impact for Good. If she’s out of sight, she’s probably either reading, petting cats, jamming to retro Bollywood, or of course, writing!

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