AIFF allows Anwar Ali to return to competitive football

Anwar Ali's career had been in limbo since he was diagnosed with a rare heart condition in 2019. Maja Hitij - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images

Two years after he was barred from playing owing to a congenital heart defect, Anwar Ali, the standout Indian defender in the U-17 World Cup in 2017, was cleared to play football by the All India Football Federation. The decision was announced following a meeting of the AIFF executive committee on Friday.

"Based on the recommendation of the AIFF Medical Committee, the Ex. Co have asked former junior Indian International footballer Anwar Ali to produce an affidavit claiming full responsibility, along with details of the medical precautions to be taken by him, and his prospective club to make him eligible to play competitive football," read the AIFF statement.

The decision is a huge boost for Ali, who turns 20 on Saturday. "I'm grateful for the decision made by the AIFF. I am looking forward to playing at the highest level once again," Ali told ESPN. His appearance at the U-17 World Cup in late 2017 had made him one of the brightest prospects in Indian football. He was a regular for the Indian Arrows in the I-League, part of the senior India team camp under national coach Igor Stimac, and then signed a contract with Mumbai FC in the Indian Super League.

And then just as it appeared ready to take off, his career stopped. He was barred from playing in 2019 by the AIFF after the detection of a congenital heart condition - Hypertrophic Cardio Myopathy. Two different sets of doctors concluded that the risk of playing was too high, though another expert gave a differing opinion to the AIFF medical committee. Ali subsequently approached the Delhi High Court, challenging the AIFF's directive barring him from practicing with his club. His petition also sought a stay on the medical committee's proceedings until the disposal of his petition.

A court battle ensued - in which Ali presented the testimony of Professor Sanjay Sharma, a fellow of the European Society of Cardiology (ESC) in his favour. Sharma testified to Ali's suitability to return to competition, and also produced a medical report to that effect. While earlier recommendations of the ESC had advised athletes with HCM to abstain from competitive sports, the latest guidelines published by the same body on August 29, 2020 suggested taking a more 'liberal approach'. Ali was permitted last November to play by the Delhi High Court pending a final decision by the AIFF committee.

However with the medical committee not making a decision, Ali's career continued to remain in a state of limbo as he stayed active, playing for a series of smaller clubs. Adjacent to every field he played in was the mandatory ambulance with the Automated External Defibrillator, which is what he'll need in an emergency. The medical committee would finally ask Ali a couple of days ago to submit testimony from Sharma with his latest test report. Ali did and Sharma reiterated his earlier testimony following which the medical committee made the recommendation to the AIFF executive committee that he be permitted to compete after presenting an affidavit admitting full responsibility for his actions - something Ali had been requesting from the start.

"This is the greatest victory of my career," said Ranjit Bajaj, owner of the Minerva Football Academy, where Ali had begun his career and where he had returned following the AIFF's original decision to bar him from playing. "I'd rate this even more significant than when Minerva won the I-League title. But this is only half the battle. I'm going to be only completely satisfied when Anwar makes his way to the Indian team," said Bajaj, who had supported Ali throughout his quest to return to the field.