As Ashique Kuruniyan lined up a shot at goal, three Hong Kong defenders rushed to narrow angles and make a block. The shot was deflected, lost all its pace and rolled casually towards the centre of the box, where Anwar Ali stood, waiting.
He took a quick step forward, then a half-step to set himself up to powerfully drive the ball into the goal with his left foot.
Within 56 seconds of the match, the 21-year-old had put India in the lead. The team would eventually come up with a 4-0 win in their last AFC Asian Cup third round qualifier, at the Salt Lake Stadium in Kolkata. They had already qualified for the continental event next year before the match began, but making it three wins out of three in Group D in front of packed stands amid pouring rain left a nice finishing touch to a good campaign.
For Ali though, scoring the opener holds great significance. It marked a new milestone in a young career that had once seen him banned from playing competitive football because of a heart condition. But on Tuesday, he scored his first ever international goal in his sixth appearance for the national team.
“I scored today, I’m very happy for that and never thought I’d score for the national team. Aaj khushi ka din hai mere liye aur mere family ke liye,” he said after the match.
But it’s been a long and hard task of getting this far.
Ali had been a part of the Indian team at the U-17 World Cup in 2017, and was signed by Mumbai City in the Indian Super League a year later for Rs 30 lakh – then a record for an U-18 player. Shortly after Igor Stimac was appointed coach of the national team in 2019, Ali was called up to the national camp for the first time.
A routine health check-up though revealed he suffered from a condition called Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy (HCM) – where the heart muscles are abnormally thick and can affect the pumping of blood. It’s the same condition that led to former Cameroon player Marc Vivien Foe suffering a fatal heart attack during a Fifa Confederations Cup match in 2003.
The youngster underwent a series of tests in Mumbai and in France, and some experts recommended that he no longer play. The advice of medical experts led to his release from Mumbai City FC, and he was dropped from his place in the Mohammedan Sporting team that had later signed him up.
Not being allowed to play football was one thing. Ali, the youngest of six, was the main breadwinner in his family. His father Razak is a cattle-herder at the Chumo village near Jalandhar. And the youngster had approached the Delhi High Court claiming he had a right to earn a livelihood.
But Ali was getting restless as he waited for doctors’ reports, and he grew desperate to play.
“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,’” he had said to The Indian Express.
“I was getting frustrated about sitting at Mumbai and waiting. So I would pick up my kit and pay private turfs for training. Playing football for those one-two hours made me train my mind that everything is like earlier in my life.”
He’d compete in the lower leagues in Delhi and Uttarakhand, hoping for a turn of the tide.
And that came when the doctor who treated Christian Eriksen after the Danish defender collapsed during a Euro 2020 match, studied Ali’s case and said he could play.
The All India Football Federation cleared him in August last year, and soon FC Goa secured his services – of course, he did have to submit an affidavit to the federation, ISL and the club absolving them of responsibility should anything tragic take place. It’s all a bit morbid but that was something Ali had been prepared to do since he was first diagnosed with HCM.
“I am just happy that the worst part of my life is now over,” the defender then told the club website.
“This is a new chapter in my life and I want to welcome the opportunity to play football. It has been a long wait to get onto the field at the highest level.”
Indian football has readily embraced the youngster who had been pegged as one of the most promising players to look out for. He’s two-footed, calm in defence, a solid distributor of the ball. And he has a solid strike at goal – he had scored an impressive free-kick against a junior Argentina side.
This was a big week for Indian football, and Ali got his moment under the spotlight. But on the other end of the pitch where the central defender usually plies his trade, he’d played a crucial role. Captain Sunil Chhetri had been talking about the importance of clean sheets, and Ali was instrumental in both the matches India went without conceding. His positioning was accurate, and he was calm when facing opposition forwards. Playing football, after all he’s been through, seems like the easier task for him. It’s with performances like this that he can find a spot in the Indian team that will compete at the Asian Cup next year.
And on Tuesday, as he stepped up to slot home, dressed in the colours of the senior national team, playing an international match… in many ways, Ali was in the right place at the right time.