In January this year, Anwar Ali turned out for 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 a little 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 script would have unfolded very differently had it not been for his resolute spirit and the indefatigable efforts of his well-wishers.
On his return, FC Goa failed to make the ISL playoff but 21-year-old Ali showed enough promise to earn a call-up to the Indian national team camp for the friendlies against Bahrain and Belarus that take place in March.
Brilliant return to top-flight football for Anwar Ali, (with a solid clean-sheet). Could not be happier for him after all the patience and hard work he’s 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 Under-17 World Cup campaign. Although India lost all three group fixtures, he proved his abilities as a strapping centre-back with aerial skills to match.
The following year, ISL side Mumbai City FC signed him from Indian Arrows for a whopping 3,000,000 Indian rupees ($39,500) – the biggest amount paid at the time for a junior player.
He was sent out on loan to the Arrows where he played his second season. But as Ali looked to rise in the ranks, he was diagnosed with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM) – a congenital heart condition – during a medical examination in August 2019.
The threat was considered serious enough for authorities to ban him from the game until further assessment.
The verdict was like a death knell as football was all that he had known ever since he first landed a ball at his feet at the age of five.
“I was in a state of shock. They were talking about banning me for life. At that time, I had completely given up,” Ali told Al Jazeera.
His father Razzak too was a budding defender during his playing days, having turned out for the Jalandhar district team as a teenager. But his financial situation meant making a livelihood took priority over passion for Razzak.
“We come from a family of buffalo herders and used to live in a jhuggi [temporary shelter] near the railway lines in Adampur in the north Indian state of Punjab. I have just five buffaloes and do a bit of dairy farming. There isn’t much work but I somehow get through the day,” Razzak told Al Jazeera.
Football over cricket
As a child, Ali was a bundle of energy, all he wanted to do was play with the boys from his neighbourhood. He started with cricket but Razzak soon realised he was not much of a cricketer and pushed him into football.
At the Dashmesh Sports Academy ground, a stone’s throw away from his house in Adampur, Ali kicked a football for the first time. He honed his skills at the academy and by the time he was in grade six, he was picked for the Jalandhar district team.
A coach from Mahilpur Academy spotted him at a tournament and recruited him. The academy had a reputation of grooming youngsters and Ali started spending more time on the field instead of in a classroom.
For the next three months, he travelled back and forth 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 chase his dreams and also improve their financial status. The plan was to send Ali to a recognised academy where he could follow his ambition of becoming a professional footballer.
Minerva Academy, a sprawling residential facility in Mohali, seemed to be the perfect fit. But sending their only son to the big city was his parents’ first big decision.
“His mother wasn’t very pleased about him leaving home at such a young age but Ali was stubborn and she eventually relented,” Razzak recalled.
Minerva owner, Ranjit Bajaj, remembers Ali as a spindly little boy who tore up and down the wings and was dominant in the air.
“I used to play as a fullback or striker but Bajaj sir first played me as centreback. He told me I had a bright future and asked me to continue playing in that position,” Ali said.
Over the years, Ali found in Bajaj, a former goalkeeper for his state and now the owner of Delhi FC, not only a mentor but also a father figure who would stick his neck out for him.
— BADGEB FANS’ CLUB (@EB_BadgebFC) January 8, 2022
The ‘big setback’
Bajaj cannot forget the call he received when Ali was diagnosed with HCM.
Ali was a wreck, unaware what HCM meant and how it would affect him. The first person he approached was Bajaj.
“The All India 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 conducted annual medical tests at Minerva, Indian Arrows did the same and there had been no sign that something was wrong. I requested Mumbai City to get him to see a sports cardiologist, which was when they agreed to send him to France,” he added.
When he realised Ali would be travelling alone, Bajaj used social media for help. He found an Indian fan in France’s city of Rennes who was willing to accompany Ali and later put him in touch with Dr Francois Carre at the University Hospital of Rennes.
“After the diagnosis, the doctor told me it was down to each football association and their rules. He said in France there were a number of footballers playing with 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 permitted to return to the game so I didn’t see any reason why Ali couldn’t play,” Bajaj said.
In October 2019, Ali was banned from playing football by the AIFF and soon after that, Mumbai City terminated his contract.
In March 2020, when India went into COVID lockdown, Ali returned home.
Facilities across the country were closed and he had nowhere to train. His father remembers how Ali kept to himself, “really confused and upset”, and he “would pray a lot”.
But he continued working at the grounds in Adampur where he had started his journey.
Bajaj used social media once again to find a specialist who was willing to take up Ali’s case. He made contact 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 as compared to other footballers,” Bajaj said.
But the ban remained despite Ali submitting a bond where he agreed to take responsibility if anything went wrong.
In September 2020, Bajaj pleaded Ali’s case with the Delhi High Court as “denial of livelihood” and managed to get a stay on AIFF’s ban.
But there was more heartbreak. Mohammedan Sporting, a Kolkata-based club that had been interested in his services and had signed him in August that year, cancelled 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. From furnished hotel rooms, he was now sharing hostel space with six other players.
“He looked despondent for the first two weeks, but he soon embraced his new surroundings. He had no airs about him,” Bajaj said.
Towards the end of 2020, he first turned out for Techno Swades United FC in the Himachal Football League, then played the second and third division of Punjab football for Minerva Academy.
He was even made Delhi FC’s captain in the senior division of Delhi ahead of more seasoned campaigners.
“That was an added responsibility that I decided to throw at him, so that he wouldn’t think about things off the field. All I wanted him to do was train and play,” Bajaj said.
The campaigns had been trouble-free and after another round of tests, Dr Sharma handed him a clean bill of health. It was enough for Ali to knock on AIFF’s door again.
In August 2021, AIFF finally relented and asked Ali to present an affidavit taking full responsibility for his health. Over the next few months, Ali played the Durand Cup and finished top-scorer in the I-League 2 qualifiers, both for Delhi FC.
By the end of that season, he had played 48 matches in all. He was now hungry for the big league.
FC Goa jumped at the opportunity and signed Ali on loan. By his own admission, the first few weeks were difficult as he was nervous to be among “such big players”.
Things got even better in December when Derrick Pereira, a man who had shaped many footballers in the past, joined as coach.
“Anwar’s earnings have allowed us to build a permanent home and also helped marry two of his three sisters,” his father said.
Now, as Ali awaits to make his India debut, he is mentally at ease each time he takes the field.
“I realised that everybody gets a second chance. Don’t let yourself down the first time around. Once you’re presented with another opportunity, make it count,” he said.