12:00 P.M. (EASTERN TIME).
Among the crowd of pilgrims at the Golden Temple in Amritsar last Wednesday night was a young man in his 20s. That day Anwar Ali was playing a game for Minerva Football Club and his teammates offered to drive him after the game. It was a pleasure to go. God ko samne se dekhte hain waha (You can meet God face to face), he says.
The only time he’s been there was five years ago. Again, I just played the game, he told ESPN in an exclusive interview. I was a toddler who dreamed of playing for India. A few years later, I played for India at the FIFA U-17 World Cup.
Ali hopes the game will be played twice. His emergence in this World Cup in late 2017 has made him one of the biggest expectations of Indian football. He was a regular with Indian Arrows in the I-League, attended the Indian national team’s training camp under national coach Igor Stimak and then signed for Mumbai FC in the Indian Super League.
And then his career ended. He was suspended by the Indian Football Federation (AIFF) in 2019 after he was diagnosed with a congenital heart defect – hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. Two different doctors concluded that the risk of gambling was too high, although another expert gave a different opinion from the AIFF medical committee. Later, in November last year, Ali was allowed to play in Delhi pending the final decision of the AIFF committee.
Thus, after more than a year’s hiatus, Ali competed on the 6th. In December last year, his first professional football game. It was not, as he had hoped, a triumphant return to the top; his return was far from the neat grass and bright lights of the ISL. Instead, he was in the village of Khad – population 1,200 – in the hill state of Himachal Pradesh, playing a local league match on a rocky, uneven terrain. I wasn’t nervous at all, I was just so excited. Just knowing that I would be back on the field and playing professional football again made me so happy, he says.
This helped him get into familiar territory: at Minerva, the club of his youth, playing in the second division of the state of Punjab. But it’s not easy, because these days there are no luxury hotels or excellent travel options. To play that game last week in Amritsar, Ali woke up at 3 a.m. traveling on the same Minerva team bus in which he was drafted five years ago.
Ali, talking about her condition for the first time, admits it takes some getting used to. It’s a challenge to know that I have to start my career from the beginning. It was difficult at first. When I got on the team bus at 4am, I realized I was taking the same bus I took when I was a junior. I went back to the same post. It reminded me that I was capable of playing at such a level. Now I’m back on base, he says.
Error! The file name is not specified. Picture file : Anwar Ali reacts during the U-17 World Cup match between India and Ghana on 12. October 2017. Maya Heathidge – FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images
It was the anticipation of a possible return to football that kept him going all those months, he says. Even when I didn’t get to play, I did what I could to keep in touch with football. I used to train on my own when the clubs wouldn’t let me train with the rest of the team. There were times when I wondered why I was trying so hard. There were times when my parents or (Minerva’s owner) Ranjitbhadhai would say something to motivate me. But I would feel better if I just played football. The simple fact of playing motivated me. At one point I had to go back to my village [Chumo, Jalandhar] and all I could do was play with the boys. And that’s exactly what I did. They said to play the game now, but jald se jald ISL khelo (back to ISL as soon as possible).
However, in each of his four games with Minerva, he kept reminding them of what kept him from playing: Next to the field is the obligatory ambulance with an automatic external defibrillator, which he needs in case of emergency. While Dr Sanjay Sharma, who is a member of the English Football Association’s cardiology team, vouched for Ali’s ability to continue playing football professionally, he also said that the risk of dying from heart disease is several times higher than for an unaffected person and should be monitored regularly.
Ali, for his part, did everything he could to deal with his heart condition. Last year he was vegetarian for a few months, replacing kebabs and curries with quinoa and oatmeal. That’s no small feat for someone who grew up on a meat diet. If my father found out, he would ask me to stop playing football and come home. So I never told him, he’s joking. Although he changed the lifestyle he had to lead, Ali is still puzzled by the whole thing. Throughout this experience, I have never felt physically different than what I have experienced in the past. I’m not training with less intensity and I’m actually much stronger than I was a year ago. Sometimes people come up to me and ask: Do you really have a problem with that? They think it’s weird too, he says.
Ranjit Bajaj, owner of Minerva, who has supported Ali’s efforts to return to professional football by providing him with legal assistance, preparing a medical report and now allowing him to play for his club, believes that Sharma’s medical report and his own experience as a player in recent months are proof that he is ready to return to the first division. After the Supreme Court ruling, Anwar had to prove to the world that he could play an entire soccer game at the highest level. He played two 90-minute matches in three days in Himachal and three matches in five days in Punjab. He had no physical problems.
Error! The file name is not specified. Anwar Ali’s career has been on hold since he was diagnosed with a rare heart condition last year. Mejia Heathidge – FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images
Of course, it’s not that simple. To put it mildly, there is a lot of bureaucracy preventing him from returning to the top level of football. In a letter to the AIFF last week, Ali wrote that although several ISL clubs had expressed interest in signing him last month, those offers were no longer valid because his case was still pending before the federation’s medical committee.
The pressure is mounting as the mid-season in India closes in ten days. Had Ely failed to make the team, it would have meant spending two seasons out of first division football. The reason I support Anwar so much is because I think he really wants to play for an Indian team. But two years is a long time away from top-flight football, especially at his age. The more he is kept out of the game, the harder it is for him not to stagnate, Bajaj said.
Ali knows that too. There’s a big difference between when I used to play and now. There used to be quality players I could learn from. It’s hard to find the same challenge now. I have to force myself to concentrate, because the quality of the opponents is not the same. I’d like to know more. As long as you are alive, you should want to learn and improve. The stronger my opponents were, the more I could learn. That’s the point of the game, he says.
The long semicircular exorcism is undoubtedly harmful to the psyche. When I found out after so long that there were several offers from ISL clubs, I felt very good. I thought I finally had a chance. Everyone at the academy was happy that I was going back to ISL. I even got a few calls from my U-17 World Cup teammates. They too had heard the rumors and were happy that I could play with them again. Then I found out a week ago that clubs aren’t that interested. I want to ask the AIFF to let me play. I really don’t understand what mistake I’m making. I understand there are risks, but I’m willing to take responsibility, he says.
Ali can’t do much, but he’s waiting for an answer. I know a little about my condition and I know the worst thing I can do is stress. I need to find a way to deal with the frustration of being told to play LSA. It wasn’t easy, but I learned the hard way. I have to accept what’s going on, he says.
At this point, what Ali owns are mostly memories. The most valuable are the Indian U-17 World Cup jerseys. I had sixteen pairs in total – eight for the house and eight for the outdoors. When I finished the World Cup, I just gave it to the young players in my village. I always knew I would have more T-shirts in the future. Now I only have one pair. It is the only memory of when I played for India. I still hope that’s not my only chance. God willing, I will play football again at this level, he says.