THERE ISN’T a lot that Razak Ali expects from others — just “dua” (prayers) for his 20-year-old son, Anwar.
“Dua” is all that the Ali household has been living on after it came to light last year that Anwar, one of India’s most promising footballers and breadwinner of the family of six, had a congenital heart disease.
The diagnosis put a fledgling career on pause. And now, within the next 10 days, the country’s football federation will decide if Anwar should ever play again.
“We have limited means, and my son’s earnings from football helped us a lot,” says Razak, who herds cattle for a living. “But this is about Anwar’s health and happiness. It’s a dilemma I wish no one else faces.”
The All India Football Federation (AIFF) has referred Anwar’s case to its medical committee. “They want to get an independent opinion from an expert. Based on the doctor’s analysis, we will take a decision. It will be a tough decision because it involves a player who could be the future of Indian football,” says an official.
Anwar’s potential as a defender is unquestioned. He grew up as a cricket-obsessed child in a village near Jalandhar.
But then, nudged by his father, he chose to make a career in football.
Anwar is the product of the famous Class of 2017 — the first Indian team to play in a FIFA World Cup, albeit in the under-17 age group. He was so impressive in the three matches that India played — against the USA, Colombia and Ghana — that the following year, Indian Super League side Mumbai City paid Rs 30 lakh to get him from his childhood club Minerva Punjab. Back then, it was a record transfer fee in India for an under-18 player.
“For Anwar, it wasn’t just about being good at the game,” says Minerva’s owner Ranjit Bajaj. “Football was also a way for him to help his family financially. He saw it as a catalyst for a better life.”
In May 2019, when Igor Stimac — one of the pillars of Croatia’s stellar run at the 1998 World Cup and now India’s coach — summoned Anwar for a national camp, it seemed a logical step forward in the centre-back’s career.
Days later, however, he was sent back. During a medical examination of the players in Mumbai, Anwar was diagnosed with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a condition where the heart muscle wall becomes abnormally thick and affects the pumping of blood.
The condition is similar to what international footballer Fabrice Muamba suffered in 2012, when he collapsed in the middle of an English Premier League match. Days later, The Guardian reported that “repeated training makes the problem worse — the muscle wall can become so thick that it stops the normal flow of blood going in and out of the heart. This is where things get dangerous”.
A former Mumbai City FC official says Anwar’s case was immediately referred to top cardiologists in Mumbai. “They were of the opinion that it was a major health risk if he continued playing,” the official says. The club then used the connections of its owners, the City Football Group, to consult experts in France. “They, too, had a similar opinion. It was deemed too risky for Anwar to keep playing,” says the official.
The contract between the player and the club was mutually terminated and for months after that, Anwar had just one question on his mind. “He kept on wondering, ‘why me’,” his father Razak says. “It was very tough for him to understand why he was being told not to play.”
According to Razak, they consulted specialists in Jalandhar and Chandigarh, who “told us it was not a major health risk if he continued playing”. And after spending nearly 10 months without a contract, Anwar was approached by Kolkata-based Mohammedan Sporting, which is playing in the second division of the I-League, or what is now the third tier of Indian football.
“I could empathise with his condition,” says Dipendu Biswas, the club’s technical director and former India international. Biswas says he was detected with the same condition in 2005 but “played for seven more years after that and scored a lot of goals”.
Last week, Anwar’s father even offered to submit an undertaking to “absolve the club of any responsibility if something happened to his son on the field”. “But we refused to accept any such letter,” says Biswas.
The AIFF is clear that Anwar can play only if medical experts agree that it will pose no health risk. “A players’ safety will not be compromised,” says the official.
Razak, meanwhile, faces an agonising call. “I hope the federation allows my son to play… only because it will make him happy. But for us, his health is foremost too. Bas dua dena bacche ko (Please pray for the child).”
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