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  • Writer's pictureRitwik Khanna

When Football Becomes a Matter of Life and Death

“Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I assure you, it's much more serious than that.” While this quote by Liverpool’s legendary manager Bill Shankly can be considered a good quip to be used in a team talk or get printed on a t-shirt, there are times when the question arises: just how important is football? One such confrontation with this challenge faces Anwar Ali, one of the stars of the Indian U17 World Cup campaign in 2017. More than a year after being diagnosed with a congenital heart problem, it seems increasingly unlikely that the youngster will play football at a high level again.

Taking to Instagram on Friday (25th September) evening, Ali released a heartfelt video imploring the authorities to let him play again, claiming that he is “nothing without football.” This video came after the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) backed the AIFF medical committee's decision to stop him from engaging in competitive sports as it increases the risk of him getting a cardiac arrest while playing. In the video, he reinforces that he is ready to sign any undertaking to absolve the federation of blame in case of a mishap, merely coming across as a 20 year old who just wants to play football.

However, it might not be that easy. An undertaking does not make AIFF’s accountability zero. There is a risk that everytime Ali steps onto the field, he will be carried off it. Ali has had consultations with doctors in Mumbai, Kolkata and France. The overwhelming opinion amongst doctors seems to be that the health risk is substantial enough to avoid strenuous activities like professional football. The only ones that disagree are the doctors who Ali visited of his own accord. Whether the difference in opinion is down to organisational associations or genuine medical practice cannot be ascertained.

A player destined for great things, Ali broke through after the U17 World Cup and has played for India in every age group from the U16s, and was even called up to the senior national team camp following impressive performances in the I-league with Indian Arrows. This led to his move to Mumbai City in the ISL ahead of 2018-19, but he was loaned back to the Arrows for another year. It was in the build-up to the 2019-20 season that his condition was detected by Mumbai City medicos. This is perhaps a scathing indictment of the lack of infrastructural quality at even the best AIFF facilities that they didn’t detect this issue over the several years that the player was with them.

Ali signed for Mohammedan SC a few months ago, but has now been removed from their squad list for the 2nd division I-league following AIFF’s directive. The club is now looking to get him to play in the Calcutta league and other local tournaments. There is perhaps a greater risk down that route considering the absence of sufficient medical staff at lower levels. However, Mohammedan have decided to stand by him during this period and are ready to help him with his coaching badges, along with a government job to ensure financial stability Something the considerably richer, Reliance-backed Mumbai City did not do.

To their credit, AIFF has raised some funds to help Ali, and the sports ministry has also offered to help. Ali, on the other hand, still wants to play,and has gone so far to say that “not playing football is as good as a death sentence for him”. There seems to be a lack of dialogue between Ali and the federation which is perhaps why he felt the need to make such a video on social media. The post has been widely circulated among the football community and, and has invoked deep sympathy, but keeping emotions aside, AIFF’s decision seems to be the right one. At the end of the day, it is far easier to mourn the early death of a career than that of the player himself.

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