The Vivekananda Yuba Bharati Krirangan ground holds fond memories for the Indian football team and Mohun Bagan Super Giant centre-back Anwar Ali. The young defender played his first international match at home in India at the Salt Lake Stadium and banked a clean sheet as India registered a 2-0 win against Cambodia in their opening game of the AFC Cup 2023 qualifiers.

He also featured in the remaining two qualifiers matches as India produced victories against Afghanistan and then Hong Kong. Besides keeping a clean sheet in the final qualifier game against Hong Kong, Ali also notched his first goal for the senior Indian national team, scoring in his just his fifth start for the Blue Tigers. 

“We were playing the AFC Asian Cup qualifiers here and I scored my first national team goal here (in Kolkata) against Hong Kong. So I have many good memories at this ground,” he said in an episode of In The Stands.

The Salt Lake Stadium will be Ali’s new home for the 2023-24 season after the youngster penned a four-year loan deal with the Kolkata giants in the summer. One of the promising young players in India at the moment, Ali is aware about the love for the game in the city and the atmosphere.

“There’s something different about playing at this stadium (Salt Lake Stadium). You know the type of football that is here in Kolkata, people love the game a lot over here. There’s a different vibe whenever I play here,” he expressed.

The setback

The Punjab-born defender began his youth career with Minerva Punjab, and was also part of the India U-17 team that played for the 2017 FIFA U-17 World Cup held in India. He continued his impressive performances for India at the youth level, going on to play for national team at the U-20 and U-23 level.

Following an impressive loan stint with the Indian Arrows during the 2017-18 season, Ali signed for his first Indian Super League (ISL) contract with Mumbai City FC the following season. However, things took a turn for the worse when he was diagnosed with a rare heart condition. The talented centre-back had to deal with a major setback just when his career was taking off.

“I didn't understand what happened because suddenly my career had just started and if it ended there (things would be difficult). The situation was like this back then. I started to think about what I would do if I stopped playing football. There were a lot of thoughts. That was the darkest phase of my life. I felt angry but I couldn't do anything about it because it was no one's mistake. It was a medical (condition) and it was God’s wish. I stopped talking to people,” Ali stated, looking back at his condition. 

The comeback

Ali was lended a helping hand by mentor Ranjit Bajaj, who promised to get his career back on track. After staying away from football for nearly 22 months, the Punjab-born was eventually cleared to play professional football from the All India Football Federation following consultation with medical experts from London, who have been dealing with similar cases.

On a mission to get back to his best, Ali underwent a short stint with Techtro Swades United, a club from Himachal Pradesh before joining Delhi FC in 2021, a club run by his mentor Bajaj. He quickly settled in at Delhi FC, helping his side reach the knockout stages in the 2021 Durand Cup. The ball playing defender also featured for the Delhi FC in the 2021 I-League Qualifiers and emerged as the top scorer, netting four goals in seven appearances.

More doors opened for Ali after his impressive performances for Delhi FC. He joined FC Goa midway during the ISL 2021-22 season on a 18-month loan deal and had a ISL debut to remember, keeping a clean sheet as the Gaurs beat Chennaiyin FC 1-0. Ali went on to play 10 games for FC Goa till the end of the ISL season, becoming a regular starter for the team.

“I was shocked at first when I got the offer (from FC Goa). I was waiting for that thing that happened earlier in my life (with Mumbai City FC) and when it would come back. I was excited and nervous at the same time because I was going to play at the top level after quite a long time. So you need confidence for that as well,” he reminisced.

Living the dream

Ali played all 20 matches for FC Goa in the ISL 2022-23 season, scoring his first ISL goal besides providing two assists. He topped the charts for the most number of successful passes besides a stunning passing accuracy of 82.75 percent. At the international level, he has earned 16 caps for the Blue Tigers and is now an indispensable player for the Igor Stimac’s side.

At his new club Mohun Bagan SG, Ali has already made a mark. He has played seven games for the Mariners so far in the Durand Cup 2023 and the AFC Cup 2023 qualifiers and has found the back of the net three times. Besides playing for Mohun Bagan SG, Ali has also fulfilled his lifelong dream of scoring for the Kolkata giants. For a young player living up to his potential, there is more to come from him.

“You need confidence to play for this club because there is a different type of pressure. Pressure from the supporters and the club management because there are very good players in the team. So it was always my dream to play (for this club), because it’s something that many dream about. My dream has now been fulfilled. And a bigger dream than that was to score for this club, it was a big deal for me. So it’s a different memory,” he said.