In 2019, Anwar Ali was forbidden from playing football. Nearly three years later, the defender, who was diagnosed with a rare heart disease, is back – after undergoing multiple scans and tests, consulting doctors from India and abroad, pleading before various committees, knocking on the doors of the Delhi High Court and submitting an affidavit in which he has claimed full responsibility, if something were to happen to him on field.
“It’s been a hell of a battle,” said Ranjit Bajaj, Ali’s mentor. “It can be a Netflix series on its own.”
The 21-year-old, hailed by Bajaj as a ‘once-in-a-generation player’, didn’t get match-time on Sunday. But a day after he was formally signed by FC Goa, he made it to the team’s bench for their Indian Super League (ISL) match against Kerala Blasters in Vasco on Sunday, which ended in a 2-2 draw.
Experts say it’s a matter of time before Ali returns to action. But for Ali, whose career had been put on hold, to be even named on the team list for the year’s first domestic fixture will feel like a vindication. “I am just happy that the worst part of my life is now over. This is a new chapter in my life,” Ali told the club’s website.
Ali, who comes from a humble background and is the breadwinner of his family of six, was considered to be among the most promising defenders in the country. One of the star performers of India’s 2017 under-17 World Cup side, he is a technically strong, two-footed centre-back with good ability to distribute balls from the back and a penchant of scoring goals.
He looked destined for big things, more so after being signed by ISL side Mumbai City in 2018 but in the following year, during a medical examination in Mumbai, Ali was diagnosed with a heart problem called Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy (HCM). It is a condition where a portion of the heart becomes thick without any obvious cause.
Ali was sent for treatment to Rennes, France, and also taken to some of the top cardiologists in Mumbai. According to the All India Football Federation (AIFF), all of them were consistent in their opinion: if Ali continues playing, it would pose a ‘serious risk to his life’. Consequently, the medical panels of the AIFF and Asian Football Confederation recommended Ali ‘should be restricted from competitive sports activity.’
His dreams crashed, Ali filed a writ petition in the Delhi High Court. Bajaj, meanwhile, was reaching out to experts abroad. “Social media was the saviour,” Bajaj, the owner of Minerva Football Academy, told The Indian Express. “Someone from the Middle East contacted me, saying he had contact with Dr Sanjay Sharma. I looked him up and found out that he was an authority on the subject.”
Sharma is the UK’s leading sports cardiologist and has treated some of the world’s top footballers, including Denmark’s Christian Eriksen, who suffered a cardiac arrest, later resuscitated, during a Euro 2020 match against. In his submission to the AIFF, Sharma gave him the green signal.
“When Dr Sharma said Christian Eriksen shouldn’t play but confidently said Anwar can play, I knew what was happening was wrong. Why would someone of his stature risk his career for someone playing in India? That’s when I decided I’d go to any lengths to make Anwar come back,” Bajaj said.
After spending a year away from the field, the Delhi High Court allowed Ali to play until the AIFF’s medical committee arrived at a decision. Ali competed in the lower divisions of the local leagues in Uttarakhand, Punjab and Delhi. Eventually, in August last the AIFF allowed him to return under medical supervision.
That, ultimately, paved the way for FC Goa, who had been monitoring his performances in the local leagues, to sign the young defender. “He (Ali) is only 21 years old and has a wonderful future ahead of him. He has the potential to become a difference-maker in the game. In the years to come, we hope to see him play a key role here in FC Goa and for Indian football,” FC Goa Director of Football Ravi Puskur told the club’s website.
To complete the move, Ali has submitted an affidavit to the AIFF, the league organisers and his club, absolving them of any responsibility if something were to happen to him on the field. As precaution, the club has included extra defibrillators and more people in the staff have been taught CPR.
“The issue has put a lot of spotlight on the health and safety of players in India. At the same time, we have ensured a once-in-a-generation talent like Anwar at least gets an opportunity,” Bajaj said. “Like I said, this entire journey has been like some Netflix series. The climax will be when he puts his India colours on.”
Before that, he’ll hope to rise from Goa’s bench and return to the field.