At school, football was just another sport. Dangmei Grace used to study in a catholic institution in her native district in Bishnupur, Nagaland. During the annual Jesuit sports day, one of her friends casually asked if she is interested in participating in football.
“I never thought I would play football professionally,” recounted Grace.
After getting permission from her parents, she travelled to Kohima to play that match which she considers as the ‘turning point’ of her life. In those 90 minutes, she struck a chord with the sport which only grew stronger with time. Without attending football training sessions, her day would remain incomplete. Hence after school, she would run 2.5 km to the field to enjoy the best part of her day.
Her rise through the ranks was swift. In 2010, she got selected for Manipur U14 and within three years she got the national team call up. And she credits the current assistant coach of the Indian national team Chaoba Devi for playing an important role in her formative years.
“I first met Chaoba ma’am (Chaoba Devi) in 2011 at the U16 nationals. She was the coach of the Manipur team. I am crazy about her teaching style, and this helped me make up my mind and join her club (Kryphsa FC). She has helped me in many ways, both on and off the field. To me, she is both my mother and father. Whatever I am, is because of her, and without her, it would have been impossible for me to reach this top-level. I am lucky enough to get her as our coach,” she stated to Goal.
Grace idolises another sporting legend from the North-East of India, boxer MC Mary Kom, and in the future, she wants to try her luck in Europe.
“To be a great player, I need to prove myself every time I play, whether in practice or in matches. I know I have to give my 100 per cent. My idol is Mary Kom. Her life story inspires me to push forward.
“For me, pushing myself with positive thoughts plays a very important role. As a player, there are a lot of ups and downs in life, and we have to face it, whatever the circumstances. At the same time, we need to enjoy every moment of life. My goal is to become a great player for our nation, to play in Europe, and be a role model for youngsters.”
But 2020 has been a difficult year for the 25-year-old. The Coronavirus pandemic stopped all sporting activities in the country and the player, like other athletes, had to adjust to the ‘new normal’.
“The lockdown totally changed our lives. As players, we are hungry and eager to practice on the field. But that was totally impossible. Yes, we did a lot of strength and conditioning, but due to the pandemic, all tournaments were cancelled. It really hurt us a lot. But I kept myself busy. Our physio planned schedules for us as a group. We used to do strength and conditioning during this time to keep ourselves fit. Apart from this, I spent time gardening and helping my mother in the kitchen.
“However, it was hard to follow the diet that we usually follow in the national camps. Despite the challenges, we managed to follow as much we could. We could not manage to follow the diet every day, yet made sure we stuck to it at least for two or three days a week,” she expressed.
India now ranks 53rd in the world in women’s football and she feels that the exposure trips organised by All India Football Federation (AIFF) and the Indian Women’s League (IWL) have played an important role in improving the standard of football.
“Many thanks to AIFF for the opportunity given to the women’s team. Earlier, we hardly had a couple of tournaments to play in a year. However, now the federation organises the IWL (Indian Women’s League) alongside various other exposure trips. These matches give us the necessary experience and exposure to prove ourselves,” she stated.
In the run-up to the AFC Asian Cup 2022, the Indian team will play a host of friendlies with West Asian and South-East Asian countries to ensure that the team gets to prepare in the best way possible.
Grace agrees that there has been an increase in awareness about woman’s football in India and hosting FIFA tournaments like the U17 Women’s World Cup will further boost the popularity of the game.
“There are a lot of supporters and fans of women’s football, and they are increasing gradually. Hosting a mega-event like the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup will bring a lot of changes to women’s football in the country. Parents will see this and will be more supportive in the future for their children to take football up,” she mentioned.
However, there’s one thing that she is vexed of. In spite of being a key member of the Indian national team, Grace feels that since she hails from the North-Eastern region of the country she is targetted on many occasions.
“At times, due to our appearance – as we belong from the North East, some people refer to us differently. To overcome it, I think positively — saying to myself that despite the differences we are all Indians, with the same common language and same national anthem.”
The 25-year-old knows how to answer her critics. She scored in the SAFF Women’s Championship against Bangladesh in the final to help India clinch the fourth successive title. On the scoresheet, it was Dangmei Grace (India). The rest doesn’t even matter.