Anwar Ali’s overpowering love for football has come up against overwhelming medical advice coaxing him to stop playing the game he loves. The 20-year-old turned out for Techtro Swades United FC against SAI Football Academy, Kangra in the Himachal Football league, albeit with massive disclaimers printed in bold warning him of the risks.
The idyllic setting in Khad village with population of 1200 – an uneven ground along a rivulet flanked by hills and fields and a cremation ground, is worlds apart from the commercialised stadiums and crowds of the U 17 World Cup where he first came to the fore. Detected with a congenital heart condition Hypertrophic Cardio Myopathy later, that saw AIFF step in to stop him, Ali returned this last fortnight on the back of the Delhi High court order which allowed him to play till AIFF takes a final decision.
Two ambulances with Automated External Defibrillator are stationed outside. Lunch is served in a makeshift pantry in the team bus. But medical support needed for a case like him – constant monitoring by a cardiologist – is not vouched for.
“At first, I was surprised seeing this stadium but then I thought I started playing football on such grounds at my village and it does not matter where I play or for which team till the time I play,” shares Ali while talking with The Indian Express.
Ali’s father Razak herds cattle at Chumo village near Jalandhar. Youngest of Razak’s four children, Ali’s skills as defender in the youth World Cup would result in a contract with ISL’s Mumbai City FC the following year. Six months later, Ali would get a national call-up under Indian coach Igor Stimac. But the muscle condition where the heart walls thicken affecting pumping of the blood, was found soon later.
Medical experts in Mumbai as well as France where he went for further checks termed Ali’s heart condition too risky to play. “As a player, you never fear medical check-ups. When they told about the congenital heart condition, I did not understand. I played like that my whole life and what changed with that diagnosis? I was bit depressed for a day or two but when I talked with my parents and Ranjeet sir, I realised that if I have to play, I have to play,” remembers Ali.
“Death can happen anytime whether it be an accident or outside football. When my father got to know about the medical condition, his only words were “Allah chahega toh tu football khelega (If it’s God will, you will play football.”
An AIFF official had earlier said: “The AFC has warned that the condition Anwar is suffering can cause cardiac arrest and hence, they have recommended he should be restricted from competitive sports activity. We will decide what is in the best interest of the player.”
His desperation to play would see him seek out playing time on his own. “When doctors in France told us about the risk and termed it as too risky, I told them that I am ready to take the risk. On my return, I was getting frustrated about sitting at Mumbai and waiting. So I would pick up my kit and pay private turfs in Mumbai for training. Playing football for those 1-2 hours made me train my mind that everything is like earlier in my life,” says Ali.
Ali’s mentor Ranjit Bajaj also approached chairman of England football Association’s cardiology consensus panel and lead cardiologist for London Olympics Sanjay Sharma. Sharma concluded after deliberating on the risks that athletes like Ali can compete in competitive sport provided there is regular surveillance of phenotype.
“I don’t even know how to spell the heart condition. And I want it to remain that way. Sharma sir had multiple talks with me and it was comforting to speak with him. The only change which I have made is that I have gone totally vegan now,” says Ali. The letter, excerpts of which are provided by Bajaj, also says there’s a 2.5 pc added risk as compared to someone leading a sedentary life, i.e. not playing.
Bajaj believes he’s done due diligence. “I had to prove to the world after High Court order and medical experts have given their opinion including Sanjay Sharma that not only he is open to transfer and he can play for 90 minutes in a full professional senior division match. The fact that he has played two matches in three days here at Himachal Pradesh League proves his fitness too and the same thing was said by Dr Sharma. He had opined that there is evidence of players with similar conditions playing in Premier league and European leagues, then what’s the problem with Anwar Ali playing in India?”
However, he will not take responsibility.
“I am his guardian as well agent as mentor. For the Himachal Football League, Anwar has signed a one-month contract with Techtro Swades United and he has signed a contract owning all the risk on himself stating that if something happens, then it is all his responsibility. He is also ready to give the same affidavit to AIFF, state associations and any club, which signs him,”
A mention about some of the international footballers like Fabrice Muamba, who collapsed in the middle of an English premier League match in 2012 and British media reporting him to be suffering from HCM, draws a blank from Ali. “I don’t think or read about such medical conditions in the past. The only international footballer I read about is Sergio Ramos. It’s all in the mind and all these months, I have not thought about the medical condition but about being a footballer. That’s what my father and family wanted and that’s what I want. I dream to play for India one day,” says Ali.
Ali has savings of close to Rs 15 lac and believes that whatever has to happen will happen. “I met Sunil Chhetri bhai and he told me it all depends on myself whether I see the risk or not. So whether local or any club, I am happy playing. And while it’s completely my risk, I want all to see and treat me like they did earlier. There has been no change in my approach and neither I want to let this affect my approach to football or life,” says Ali.
While he follows careers of former teammates in ISL, Ali rounds up his village kids to train with him at the village ground. “I cannot do anything except for playing. The U-17 team is like family and all of them keep telling me that they all are waiting to see me in action and perhaps compete against them one day. In football, a defender’s job is to thwart all efforts of strikers and also score whenever possible. In life too, I believe I have to keep all the bad thoughts away and take my chance when it’s available,” says Ali.
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