Full of heart: Anwar Ali’s remarkable return to the highway to India glory

June 14, 2022 is a date Anwar Ali fondly remembers. That was the day he scored his first international goal for India at the Yuva Bharati Krirangan in Kolkata. India had already qualified for the AFC Asian Cup 2023 but his goal in the very first minute against group-topper Hong Kong saw the host build on the lead to win the match 4-0 and maintain a 100 percent win rate.

“For a second I froze,” Anwar tells  Sportstar as he remembered that moment.

“And everybody surrounded me. It was surreal. Scoring a goal for your country is a very different feeling – to play for the senior national team and then find the net, it’s a huge achievement for me as a player. Every footballer in India dreams of donning the national jersey one day and I wore it and even scored. I do not have words to express how happy that made me.”

It was the culmination of a journey – a story of two lives, as the 22-year-old from Adhampur, Punjab, himself puts it.

In 2017, Anwar was one of the brightest prospects of Indian football. He was picked for the Indian team in the FIFA Under-17 World Cup. He started all matches and impressed scouts from all corners of Indian football. Next year, he scored a brilliant free-kick to help India U-20s beat Argentina U-20s, who were then coached by FIFA World Cup 2022 winner Lionel Scaloni.

In August 2018, he saw another of his dreams come true. The defender was signed by Mumbai City FC for ₹30 lakh, a record for an U-18 player. Bright future seemed ahead of him but just then, Anwar was diagnosed with a congenital heart defect, known as hypertrophic obstructive cardiomyopathy in medical parlance.

“During the MCFC medical, they found a medical condition, my heart condition, and concluded that playing football would be too risky for me,” he says.

‘Heart of an 80-year-old’

Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy, also known as HCM, is a disorder in which the heart muscle becomes thickened (hypertrophied), which can make it harder for the heart to pump blood. According to a study, the condition remains one of the most common causes of cardiac arrests in athletes and several footballers, namely Marc Vivien Foe, Miklos Feher, and Antonio Puerta, have lost their lives with the condition.

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“An athlete with HOCM (same as HCM) might seem very fit but the heart is struggling like that of an unwell 80-year-old,” Dr Tom Riddington wrote in the  Guardian.

“Sudden strain, like a football match, demands an overwhelming effort. If he is lucky, shortness of breath or chest pain is a warning sign that something is wrong. But often the first signs of trouble are collapse or what doctors call sudden cardiac death.”

Dead end

With no game time at all, as Anwar terminated his contract with MCFC to join Mohammedan SC, his footballing aspirations hit another roadblock. The Sports Medical Committee (SMC) of the All India Football Federation (AIFF) did not give a clearance for the player to go ahead.

Aisa laga mano jhatka lag gaya life ko (It felt like a shock to me). I decided to consult other doctors. Even they said the same thing. Initially, I remained in a state of denial – I did multiple tests in a week and confined the news from my parents but eventually, every test and every check-up came up with the same conclusion.”

“There were times I could not sleep and the worst feeling is when I wait for test results and pray that sometimes it is in my favour but all the time, it was the same. I told my parents and they asked me to have faith in God, offer  namaz five times a day and keep practising,” he adds.

Early sparks: Anwar Ali (in blue) during a FIFA U-17 World Cup contest against USA in 2017. Anwar impressed during the World Cup and was looked upon as a star of the future.
| Photo Credit: AP

And just like that, with medical evidence against him, a 20-year-old Anwar was advised to stop playing football.

What followed was a tug-of-war between the youngster on one side and the All India Football Federation (AIFF) on the other.

Anwar, with help from Ranjit Bajaj, his agent and former owner of I-League side Minerva Punjab FC, and lawyer Amitabh Tewari, took the case to the Delhi High Court. “The AIFF committee (SMC), led by Mr. Paes, had made a case, after consultation with doctors from the AFC (Asian Football Confederation), that it was not safe for Anwar to play,” Ranjit tells  Sportstar.

“However, we did all the tests and consulted Dr. Sanjay Sharma, the Chairman of The FA Cardiology Consensus Panel, a fellow of the European Society of Cardiology (ESC) and the cardiologist of Christian Eriksen at Tottenham Hotspur. He testified in favour of our boy (Anwar).”

Keeping hopes alive

As Anwar’s case dragged for two years, the player kept himself in shape playing in other leagues, honing his skills at Minerva’s Academy, one which Ranjit still owns. “I tracked Anwar for a year to ensure he is fit,” adds Ranjit, “He joined Techtro Swades United FC, a club in the Himachal State League and played the season as captain, guiding the side to a runner-up spot in the league. And in a year he played at least 40 games – a good enough metric for any top-notch player.”

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In August 2021, the Federation finally gave a green signal for the defender to play, and after stints with Techtro and Delhi FC (I-League 2nd division side), Anwar was finally back where life paused three years ago – at the doorstep of an ISL club. This time, it was FC Goa.

“After the Durand Cup, FC Goa signed me up. I feel this (after the permission to play despite my heart condition) is my second life and signing for such a big club was a great moment for me,” says Anwar.

Looking back at the dark days not so long ago, there are glimpses of hope too. The brightest one being a friend from Mumbai, Asif Khan, a midfielder who replaced Anwar at the ISL club.

“Asif became a very good friend. He used to tell me to keep myself occupied with other things, and not think of the problem all the time. We were staying close to his house so we used to go to his house. ‘ Ghar ka khana sab ko pasand thha’ (everybody liked homemade food), so we used to go to his house late at night to eat. I am still in touch with him and when we meet, we talk at length,” he says.

‘Very proud’

Anwar completed his first-ever season with an ISL club this year, with four clean sheets, two goals and one assist for FC Goa.

Since his national team debut – he came on for Prita Kotal in the second-half injury time against Bahrain – the defender has played every minute of every game he has started. In March, he got another feather to his cap, winning the Sportstar ACES Comeback of the Year 2023. “I am glad to be on this stage and would like to thank everyone for this award,” he says.

Looking at the trophy, he starts talking about his father – a former State-level defender who chose dairy farming against football to sustain a family. “I was, maybe six or seven years old when he introduced me to football. I am very proud that I have got such a family because no one from my family has gone out of the State (playing football) and I feel very fortunate to see people recognise my dad as the father of Anwar,” he says.

Anwar is seated beside a quiet lobby at the Taj Mahal Palace in Mumbai. The noise inside his head, and that outside, is silenced. The court cases are settled and his journey is just getting started – to play, to score, and to win.

Anwar just wanted to play football. And that he is doing with at least a decade in front of him in the sport.

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