Poulomi Adhikari realised her dreams of playing for India early in her career, but life soon hit her hard. The footballer represented the country in the 2013 AFC Under-16 Championship qualification tournament but now works as a food delivery agent.
She started playing football with the boys of her locality when she was five. Poulomi lost her mother as a toddler and was raised by her aunt, Ashima Patra, in the Shibrampur neighbourhood of Behala in Kolkata.
“When I started playing, everyone thought I was a boy. Initially, it was not a problem, but when they discovered I was a girl, the parents of the other children protested to the coach. At that time, I understood people do not look at women footballers with respect. I have received only hate for my love for football,” Poulomi tells Sportstar.
To find a way out, she took up hockey to channel her sporting energy with occasional spells of football. Her skills, however, did not miss the eyes of Anita Sarkar, an astute football coach in Behala who spotted Poloumi and trained her for a few years.
After giving trials for the U-16 in 2012, Poulomi gained attention in the Kanyashree Cup, the women’s league in Kolkata, while playing for Innovation, an NGO that helps underprivileged footballers.
Poulomi’s impressive run in the tournament coincided with a call-up to represent India in the 2013 AFC U-16 Championship qualifiers in Sri Lanka. However, an injury in a match against Iran blighted her prospects for three years before she marked a comeback to the national team for the ‘Homeless’ World Cup in Glasgow.
“Poulomi is a highly talented player. But her background has turned out to be a stumbling block in her career,” her coach Anita laments.
Poulomi, who plays as a defender, started to feel the pinch of poverty in 2017 when her father, Kishore Adhikari, lost his job as a part-time cab driver.
At 26, Poulomi continues to live in despair as she juggles to make ends meet. With waning opportunities and endless hardships coming her way, she took up a job with restaurant aggregator Zomato, delivering food on her bicycle.
While she harbours dreams of playing professionally, the nature of her job makes it difficult to keep up with her passion. “I cannot train regularly. Even when I get time, I can train for an hour. Sometimes, I do night shifts. One cannot play at the highest level with this little training. Football is my passion, but I also need a job to support my family,” says the third-year B.A. student at Charuchandra College.
Poulomi used to earn around Rs 500 a day at the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Her income, now, has plummeted to a meagre Rs 200-300 a day, with more people joining food aggregator services.
“I have been doing the job to help my family and for my educational expenses. In a family where nobody has a permanent source of income, everyone needs to work. But to sustain my career as a footballer, I need a permanent job. My present earnings do not allow me to buy a pair of new spikes and get proper nutrition,” she adds.
Shanti Mullick, an Arjuna awardee and former India women’s team captain, rues the plight of the women’s game in India. “It is very sad to hear about this. Nobody cares about women’s football. The situation was the same in my time. It has not changed even today. I was lucky to get a job in the Railways. Now, as her plight has come to the light, she might get a job.
“It is not about just Poulomi. There are thousands of girls, including Adivasis, playing football now, and the sport is by nature played by the poor. We have one league for them in Kolkata. For a player to ensure her career, football should be her profession. Why do players have to search for jobs elsewhere to survive? If we cannot ensure that, we are only responsible for their inability to play,” adds Mullick.