Bala Devi scores, and soars, in her Rangers footballing adventure

Bala Devi in action for Rangers in the SWPL. AIFF Media

Bala Devi has achieved a lot in the past year -- played for Rangers in the Scottish Women's Premier League; scored for Rangers (including one wonder goal); got through a lockdown imposed weeks after she arrived in a new country; trained harder than ever before; morphed from being an out-and-out striker into a No. 10, a creator. And even understood (partly) the Scottish accent.

On Sunday, she faces another huge hurdle. An Old Firm derby against arch-rivals Celtic that Rangers must win to stay in the league title race. It helps that she is in sublime form.

The aforementioned wonder goal came last weekend, against Spartans. She received the ball a good 30 yards from goal, with nothing on. Rangers were already leading 4-0 and there was a minute or so of stoppage time to play. The simple, safe thing to do would have been to keep possession -- trap the ball, pass it on, wait for it to be delivered into the box.

Bala, though, hasn't gone from kicking the ball around with boys in a remote Manipuri village to the Scottish Premier League by sticking to doing the simple things, or by making the safe choices.

A touch to stop the ball dead, another to set herself up, and whoosh -- a delicious scoop and the hopelessly-out-of-position Spartans keeper had no chance. Rangers 5 - 0 Spartans. There goes Ngangom Bala Devi, troubling the scoreboard keepers again.

"The player who passed it to me was overjoyed," laughs Bala. "She wasn't expecting an assist, and that was probably the most spectacular goal she had assisted."

"As a forward, you have to make split-second decisions. This was just one of those," she says, with a smile. She makes it sound routine -- probably because for her, it is. Before moving to Glasgow, Bala had top-scored when giants Manipur won their 20th national championships (that's out of 25), smashing in 21 goals in six games.

At Rangers, though, she's more goal-creator than goal-scorer. While she still plays as a striker, Rangers see her more as a No.10 and it's a move that the 31-year-old is happy with. "The advantage of the No. 10 position is that you can score, and you can create. I can use my vision better and influence the game here -- after all, what's important is how I can help the team. The coach told me recently that I've improved a lot." It's a natural evolution, and India's best women's footballer has taken it in her stride.

Just as she had the dark turn that her career had taken when she arrived in Scotland in early 2020. A few weeks after landing in Glasgow, Scotland went into lockdown to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, and the 2020 SWPL season got cancelled. 'Null and void'.

"I was emotional at first. It was tough. I didn't know what to do, what not to do. I struggled. But then, I started talking to myself, remembering what I had come here to do. I told myself the harder I work, the easier it will be for those who follow [her path, from India to Europe's top leagues]."

It helped that the team itself was a tight-knit unit that looked after each other. "I had to take care of my own fitness and diet, but the Rangers staff and team kept talking to each other, and they all supported me a lot. The sports scientists gave me customised weekly schedules to help maintain my fitness.

As lockdown eased, she was also captivated by the Scottish public's attitude toward fitness. "Everyone runs here, regardless of what the weather is like. Even when it's raining, they are out there running on the streets and in the parks. So, I thought, 'if they are paying so much attention to fitness, what's my excuse?'," she says.

"Those 7-8 months without football were dedicated to fitness," she says. It came in handy when the 2020-21 season rolled around. "The intensity is much higher here. The style of play itself is different, but it's the intensity that stands out."

It's not just the nature of football that Bala has had to adjust to. It's the sheer volume. "They play a full season over a long period of time here in Scotland and the training is five days, full time, at the club. I have never trained the way I have here," Bala had told Sky Sports in December 2020.

"I love it. It's very good for a footballer," she says now about the length of the season, and the amount of training she has to do. "Slowly, slowly, you can see things are improving in India too [where there are, currently, a maximum of two month-long national tournaments for elite women footballers]"

The India connect is something she keeps close to heart.

In December 2020, Bala became the first Indian to ever score a goal in a major European first division, when she netted the ninth in Rangers' 9-0 hammering of Motherwell. She speaks of how important it is for her to make her nation proud, how her experience in Europe can help her teammates in the national team, how she hopes to pave the way for the youngsters in the team.

She stays connected with her family, calling them daily -- "between 10-11 PM IST" -- and making sure to tell her father, who is a kidney patient, to take care, advising her family to stay in and stay safe. But she's not scared. "In my village, there are only a few COVID-19 cases, so it's okay," she says.

For now, her focus, she says, is "on the game." On leading Rangers to what would be just their second women's first division title (leaders Glasgow City have won it 14 out of 18 times). And... on understanding the Scottish accent.

"It was so hard in the beginning! My English wasn't great to begin with, but the accent.. They use 'aye' instead of 'yes'," she laughs heartily. "There are certain words that people use here on the field like 'bounce' when you want to receive a throw, or 'time' when you want someone to make a run. These are the small things that you have to get used to, since we don't use it at all in India."

As is her wont, Bala is learning fast. And the more she plays, the more those around are convinced she's a master of the only language that really matters in their field of business -- the universal language of football.