ISL: Anwar Ali getting a second chance means Indian football can hope to fill a void

A footballer suffering a cardiac arrest while playing was once a very rare occurrence.

In 2003, Marc-Vivien Foe’s death on the pitch while playing Cameroon’s Confederations Cup semifinal against Colombia shook the football world. Nine years later, Fabrice Muamba suffered a near-fatal collapse during a Premier League match. And another nine years later, Christian Eriksen was miraculously brought back to life after he suffered a cardiac arrest during Denmark’s Euro 2020 game against Finland.

In between, Brazilian Cristiano Junior passed away tragically on field during a Federation Cup match in Bengaluru, while playing for Dempo against Mohun Bagan. These four incidents took place over a span of 18 years. In recent weeks, however, the game has been awash with cardiac-related incidents.

Last month, Barcelona and Argentina forward Sergio Aguero had to retire due to cardiac issues. Earlier in December, Napoli’s Piotr Zielinski was taken off the pitch after he developed severe respiratory issues after 19 minutes. Around the same time, Martin Terrier, who plays for French league side Rennes, left the pitch in similar circumstances. In November, Wigan’s Charlie Wyke had suffered a cardiac arrest during training.

In this backdrop, Indian Super League (ISL) heavyweights FC Goa announced the signing of 21-year-old defender Anwar Ali on Saturday. In mid-2019, Ali was diagnosed with Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy (HCM), the same condition that Foe and Muamba suffered from and Eriksen was suspected of having.

After a couple of years of deliberation, however, Ali – who was not allowed to play – was given the green signal, largely based on the views of medical experts, including UK-based Dr Sanjay Sharma, who is associated with Premier League clubs and has treated Eriksen and insisted the Danish star shouldn’t play anymore.

But in Ali’s case, Sharma told the AIFF that he would have been allowed to play in England since he is asymptomatic, has no family history of sudden death from HCM and other risk factors. That paved the way for the AIFF to give Ali the clearance and Goa were first to move, signing the prodigious talent who is described by his mentor, Ranjit Bajaj, as a ‘once-in-a-generation’ player.

Ali is a ball-playing centre-back, with wide passing range, great stopping abilities and the skills to ping the ball right at the winger’s feet. He has a knack of scoring goals, too; the screamer he scored from free-kick against Argentina’s junior side can be watched on loop.

Three years, however, is a long time away from football and Ali is still untested against top-quality sides so it’ll be interesting to see where he is at when he eventually returns to the field. Ali was on the bench for Goa’s match against Kerala Blasters on Sunday but it should be a matter of time before he gets the nod.

That he is playing at a steady side like Goa and under an Indian coach, Derrick Pereira, who has shaped many a career, should bode well for Ali.

Ali’s return is also good news for the national team. He comes back at a time when India coach Igor Stimac is strained for options in the centre of the defence.

The first half of the year is going to be make-or-break for the national team, as well as for Stimac. In March, India will reportedly be playing two big international friends, against Bahrain and Belarus, both ranked inside the world’s top 100. Then, in June, India will play in the final round of qualifiers for the 2023 Asian Cup.

Against teams ranked higher than them, a watertight defence will be the key to India’s fortunes. But the team has been severely lacking depth in the central defensive areas, with Stimac forced to deploy makeshift centre-backs in some cases.

In the ISL, too, that has been the case. While most teams have preferred to play at least one foreign centre-back to provide heft to their defence, managers have been forced to play makeshift CBs with few other reliable options at their disposal.

ATK Mohun Bagan, for instance, have had Pritam Kotal – who prefers to be on the right — play in the centre after Deepak Tangri got sent off during their 5-1 drubbing at the hands of defending champions Mumbai City. For Chennaiyin, Narayan Das played temporarily in the centre before the team started to deploy a three-man defence. And Mumbai City have had Rahul Bheke in that position, another player who likes playing as a right back.

To make matters worse, the only established centre-back in the national team, Sandesh Jhingan, has been out of action for nearly a year. Jhingan signed for Croatian top-tier club HNK Sibenik last year but he picked up an injury and is currently in rehab.

Hyderabad’s Chinglensana Singh and Jamshedpur’s Narendra Gahlot are the two traditional centre-backs who have been impressive this season and if Ali shows the same promise that he showed before his career was put on hold, Stimac will have another option at his disposal.

It would be naïve to expect that a 21-year-old who hasn’t played top-level competitive football for almost three years will be the magical solution to India’s problems. But when he was away from football, all Ali requested was a chance.
When he gets it, it’ll be up to him to grab it.

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