From a heart battle to the battlefield: Anwar Ali's extraordinary journey
Over the years, the Hero Indian Super League (ISL) has produced many ever-reliable center backs for the national team but only a handful of them are left-footed. FC Goa's Anwar Ali is one such defender who has shown his ability of understanding the game at an early age and has been an early bloomer as compared to the other defenders of his age.
However, in 2019, the defender suffered from Hypertrophic Myocardiopathy (a heart condition where the heart muscle wall becomes abnormally thick and affects the pumping of the blood). The medics came to a conclusion that Ali couldn’t play again following which the AIFF (All India Football Federation) medical committee barred him from practising with a professional club. The joy of playing the game had faded away for Ali, let alone the dream of representing the nation in the senior side.
But, there is no better way to express one's passion towards this game than Ali's request to AIFF two years back. "Just how a soldier fights in the battlefield in spite of his life being in danger, similarly, the game of football is a battlefield for me, there's danger in the game as well but if I go with the thinking that my life is in danger because of it and that I should leave playing football then it is no less than a death sentence for me," said Anwar Ali in a special video to AIFF requesting him to be back on the pitch after an improved medical condition. The player's dogged persistence made AIFF to change its decision and resume his career by asking him to take the full responsibility. Since then there is looking back for the defender.
Anwar Ali joined FC Goa in the Hero ISL 2021-22 season and has been a permanent stay for side in the last two years. The future prospect became a regular starter for the Gaurs in the 2022-23 campaign, as he played all the 20 games under head coach Carlos Pena. The Spaniard expressed that he liked Ali's technical ability and firm mentality. While being known for his defensive abilities, Ali is also known for his ball progression and the tendency to crop up ahead and score goals, having a goal and two assists to his name this season. In the defensive duties too, the 22-year-old player tops the chart. He has 25 interceptions and 80 clearances, the highest for an FC Goa player this season.
"Anwar Ali has become a leader. Ali is an important part of that backline. The beautiful thing about him is that he is a big boy. He plays with his physicality. He is big, dominant in the air, wins his tackles, positioning is very sound, and his distribution is good. He's got all the makings of being a good defender," says Hero ISL expert Erik Paartalu.
After having shown promise with his ball-playing ability and other technical aspects in the Hero ISL 2021-22 season with FC Goa, he was selected in the squad by head coach Igor Stimac. The coach found him bankable to start as a center-back and did so in the AFC Asian Cup Qualifiers and eventually, Ali scored his first goal in national colors against Hong Kong in 2022. The center back carried the form in the club as well and had a solid 2022-23 season. From battling career ending heart disease to scoring a goal for India, the story of Anwar Ali is special.
"It's been a fantastic journey and it's so nice to see a player who has been through so much. Now playing at the highest level in India and turning in good performances as well. And you know doing the sport that he loved. So I think he's a very, very important part, he is still a young player but he plays with a maturity that's beyond these years. He plays like a much older player," adds Hero ISL commentator Mark Tompkins.
Despite the uncertainties around him off the field, the defender kept playing the game simple and made it look so easy, which is reflected in his words too when he was asked about his personal goal in the near future. The defender has played 30 matches across two seasons so far in the Hero ISL. Already having an eye on his own goal post, the 22-year-old's target is to earn his first silverware in the coming years.
"Ups and downs are part of the game but we as a team put in all the hard work. My biggest target is to win the Hero ISL trophy. I still haven't achieved it yet. As a defender, I can't score many goals but my ultimate goal is to keep the clean sheet as much as I can," he concluded.