AFTER A ROCKY START against Pakistan, the Indian team steadied their ship in the second outing in SAFF Women's Championship 2022, delivering a memorable 9-0 victory over Maldives.
But even as the Blue Tigresses continue to adjust to the rains, muddy pitches and the high altitude of Kathmandu, one of the most stable elements in the team has been Grace Dangmei who has marshalled India's offence through the wings in both matches, scoring in each outing and creating numerous chances.
With many experienced players like Manisha Kalyan, Dalima Chibber not being available for this tournament due to playing abroad, Grace stands as an exception. In July she signed for Uzbek club Nasaf Qarshi (whose women's team is known as Sevinch Qarshi), but her presence here as one of the most experienced players in the Indian squad has made a whole lot of difference through a difficult period.
Speaking to TFG on Sunday, she credited her move to a club abroad as the reason behind an increase in confidence,
"I think every footballer has a dream of going abroad and playing in Europe or anyhing. But for me it's a high privilege to play for the Nasaf team. The football I have been learning from my early age till now... it's a success for me to explore my career in Uzbekistan as well as Indian football... Nasaf gave me a lot of experience and overall it gave me a lot of confidence to come back in the national team and help my team... I dedicate everything to my teammates. We want to become the champions once again."
For Indian football fans, her presence brings a boost in confidence as well. Throughout her career, Grace has been a trophy magnet for her clubs as well as national team. She won the Indian Women's League while playing for Sethu FC and Gokulam Kerala FC.
She has been an important part of the last two SAFF titles India have won. And few would forget her performance during the Olympic Qualifiers in 2019 when the Blue Tigresses almost made it to the third round for the first time in their history, falling short to Myanmar only by goal difference.
Although she's been a regular part of the Indian national team for the last 9 years, it's hard to believe that she didn't see her first football coach until she was 13 years old. She recalls the day her football career began, perhaps by chance,
"When I started playing football, no one gave me any hints about football and I didn't know anything about it. One of my friends invited me to play in a grassroot level tournament when I was in Class VII... I went there and one of the coaches saw me playing and he insisted, if you want to join football I would help you. On that day I talked with my father... my dad told me that, it's your choice. If you want to join it, you can join it. From that day I started going to practice in my local area and after that I got selected for Manipur U-14 team. And on that day onwards I started my football career."
Her natural talent, dribbling abilities and speed on the pitch carried her straight into the national camp, and it was only then she decided to make the sport her primary occupation in life,
"When I was playing in the age category levels, I did not take football much seriously. But when I was called up for the senior national team, it was 2013, I joined my first senior national trials in Pune and from that day onwards I started thinking that I would take football as a profession. Because I met a lot of senior players like Bembem di, Bala di and Sasmita Malik. Many senior players were there. And from then onwards I thought to myself that one day I would become like them; play for the country. So from 2013 onwards I started taking football as a profession."
Since then Grace has played at the highest levels that any Indian footballer can hope to be in; both for club and country. But SAFF, she said, still occupied a special place in her heart.
When asked about her most memorable match, she pointed to the famous final match between India and Nepal in SAFF Women's Championship in 2019,
"Before the final match we were having some team meeting. On the team meeting everyone was very emotional. The coaches were very emotional, players were emotional. I was also very emotional in that meeting room. Everyone was crying. And we played Nepal and won 3-1 in the final. For me this was the most memorable match in my life."
In the match which is etched forever in the minds of fans thanks to the performance of India in front of a sold-out Nepali crowd, Grace led from the front, scoring a crucial goal and being a constant threat from the right wing to ensure victory for India.
Grace said she relished the challenge India always face in this tournament, and asked fans not to take the competition for granted just because India have won the previous editions,
"I would like to say to them, whenever we want to defend our title once again it's a very very difficult task for us. Every team has been improving day by day and this time most of the teams are good, I would say. And also I don't want the fans to neglect women's football. I want them to support more and more, whatever the competition is. That's what I want to say, to support women's football by any means."
With hosts Nepal and upcoming opponents Bangladesh being in top form, India are looking at a tough week ahead in the competition; but thanks to the presence of players like Dangmei Grace, the Blue Tigresses seem to be more than up to the task.