Anwar Ali: From football ban to Indian national team | Soccer News
In January this year, Anwar Ali traveled to FC Goa to make his Indian Super League (ISL) debut.
Ali was a bundle of nerves. But there was palpable excitement: he had finally managed to play football again after what seemed like the end of the road just over two years ago.
In 2019, things seemed to be going badly for Ali. He was banned from football in October after being diagnosed with a heart condition.
For the next 22 months, he was forced to stay away from the sport. And the scenario would have turned out very differently had it not been for his resolute spirit and the tireless efforts of his supporters.
Upon his return, FC Goa failed to qualify for the ISL qualifiers but 21-year-old Ali showed enough promise to be called up to the Indian national team camp for the friendly matches against Bahrain and Belarus which will take place in March.
Brilliant return to top-flight football for Anwar Ali, (with a solid clean sheet). I couldn’t be happier for him after all the patience and hard work he put in for this day. Good luck for the rest of the season 🔥@FCGoaOfficial #FCGCFC #ISL
— Pulasta Dhar (@TheFalseNo9) January 8, 2022
In 2017, Ali was an integral part of India’s U17 World Cup campaign. Although India lost all three group matches, he proved his ability as a centre-back with aerial skills to match.
The following year, ISL team Mumbai City FC signed him with Indian Arrows for 3,000,000 Indian rupees ($39,500) – the highest amount paid at the time for a junior player.
He was loaned to the Arrows where he played his second season. But as Ali sought to move up the ladder, he was diagnosed with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM) – a congenital heart condition – during a medical examination in August 2019.
The threat was considered serious enough that authorities banned him from gambling until further assessment.
The verdict was like a death knell as football was all he had known since he first landed a ball at his feet aged five.
“I was in shock. They were talking about banning me for life. By then I had completely given up,” Ali told Al Jazeera.
His father Razzak was also an aspiring defender during his playing days, having played for the Jalandhar district team as a teenager. But his financial situation meant that earning a living took precedence over passion for Razzak.
“We come from a family of bison herders and lived in a jhuggi [temporary shelter] near the railway tracks in Adampur, in the state of Punjab, in northern India. I only have five buffaloes and do some dairy farming. There’s not a lot of work, but somehow I get through the day,” Razzak told Al Jazeera.
Football instead of cricket
As a child, Ali was a ball of energy, all he wanted was to play with the boys in his neighborhood. He started with cricket but Razzak soon realized he wasn’t much of a cricketer and pushed him into football.
On the grounds of Dashmesh Sports Academy, a stone’s throw from his home in Adampur, Ali kicked a soccer ball for the first time. He honed his skills at the academy and by the time he was in sixth grade, he was picked for the Jalandhar district team.
A coach from Mahilpur Academy spotted him during a tournament and recruited him. The academy had a reputation for grooming youngsters and Ali began to spend more time on the pitch rather than in a classroom.
For the next three months, he traveled daily by bus until he finally moved into school accommodation.
The family then decided to put all their eggs in one basket – professional football would allow Ali to pursue his dreams and also improve his financial situation. The plan was to send Ali to a recognized academy where he could pursue his ambition of becoming a professional footballer.
Minerva Academy, a sprawling residential facility in Mohali, seemed like the perfect fit. But sending their only son to the big city was his parents’ first big decision.
“His mother was not very happy that he left home at such a young age, but Ali was stubborn and she finally gave in,” Razzak recalls.
Minerva’s owner, Ranjit Bajaj, remembers Ali as a spindly little boy who tore his wings and towered in the air.
“I used to play as a full-back or a striker, but Bajaj first played me as a central defender. He told me that I had a good future and asked me to keep playing in this position,” Ali said.
Over the years, Ali has found in Bajaj, a former state goalkeeper and now owner of Delhi FC, not only a mentor but also a father figure who would reach out to him.
— BADGEB FANS CLUB (@EB_BadgebFC) January 8, 2022
The “great setback”
Bajaj cannot forget the call he received when Ali was diagnosed with HCM.
Ali was a wreck, unaware of what HCM meant and how it would affect him. The first person he approached was Bajaj.
“The Indian Football Federation (AIFF) told him he would never play football again and offered him a coaching job. It was a big setback,” Bajaj told Al Jazeera.
“We had carried out annual medical tests at Minerva, Indian Arrows did the same and there had been no signs that anything was wrong. I asked Mumbai City to get him to see a sports cardiologist, that’s when they agreed to send him to France,” he added.
When he realized Ali would be traveling alone, Bajaj took to social media for help. He found an Indian fan in the French city of Rennes who was willing to go with Ali and then put him in touch with Dr François Carré at Rennes University Hospital.
“After the diagnosis, the doctor told me that it depends on each football association and their rules. He said that in France a number of footballers play in the same condition, while in England they were banned. In India, former professionals like Dipendu Biswas had HCM and Anwar Ali had suffered a heart attack. Both had been cleared to return to the game, so I saw no reason why Ali could not play,” said said Bajaj.
In October 2019, Ali was banned from playing football by the AIFF and soon after Mumbai City terminated his contract.
In March 2020, when India entered COVID lockdown, Ali returned home.
Facilities across the country were closed and he had nowhere to train. His father remembers Ali being left alone, “really confused and upset”, and “praying a lot”.
But he continued to work on the grounds of Adampur where he had started his journey.
Bajaj once again used social media to find a specialist willing to take on Ali’s case. He got in touch with Dr Sanjay Sharma, a sports cardiologist in England.
“After going through Ali’s reports, Sharma told the AIFF Medical Committee that there was no risk if he played. He just needed to be tested more frequently than other footballers,” Bajaj said.
But the ban stuck despite Ali posting a bond in which he agreed to take responsibility if something went wrong.
In September 2020, Bajaj argued Ali’s case in the Delhi High Court as a “denial of livelihood” and successfully secured a reprieve from the AIFF ban.
But there was more grief. Mohammedan Sporting, a Kolkata-based club that had been interested in his services and signed him in August of the same year, canceled the contract two months later.
Ali’s wait for competitive football continued.
—Marcus Mergulhao (@MarcusMergulhao) March 8, 2022
Bajaj asked Ali to train at Minerva Academy. Furnished hotel rooms, he now shared the hostel space with six other players.
“He seemed discouraged for the first two weeks, but he quickly understood his new surroundings. He had no air around him,” Bajaj said.
Towards the end of 2020, he first played for Techno Swades United FC in Himachal Football League and later played Punjab Football Second and Third Division for Minerva Academy.
He was even named captain of Delhi FC in Delhi’s senior division ahead of more experienced campaigners.
“It was an extra responsibility that I decided to give him, so he wouldn’t think about things off the pitch. All I wanted him to do was train and play” , Bajaj said.
The campaigns had gone off without a hitch and after another round of tests, Dr. Sharma gave him a clean bill of health. All Ali had to do was knock on AIFF’s door again.
In August 2021, the AIFF finally relented and asked Ali to submit an affidavit taking full responsibility for his health. Over the following months, Ali played in the Durand Cup and finished top scorer in I-League 2 qualifiers, both for Delhi FC.
By the end of that season, he had played 48 games in all. He was now hungry for the big league.
FC Goa jumped at the chance and signed Ali on loan. By his own admission, the first few weeks were difficult because he was nervous to be among “such great players”.
Things got even better in December when Derrick Pereira, a man who had shaped many footballers in the past, took over as coach.
“Anwar’s income allowed us to build a permanent house and also helped to marry off two of his three sisters,” his father said.
Now, as Ali waits to make his India debut, he is mentally at ease every time he steps onto the pitch.
“I realized that everyone had a second chance. Don’t let it get you down the first time. Once another opportunity is presented to you, make it count,” he said.