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FIFA U-17 World Cup: How defender Anwar Ali went from being a small-town boy to making India dream

Anwar Ali, son of a cowherd, will be taking care of India's rearguard at the U-17 World Cup


Anwar Ali seen here playing for Minerva
Anwar Ali seen here playing for Minerva

Adampur, a Tehsil in the Jalandhar district of Punjab, is known to many as an Air Force Station, the second largest military air base in India. It is about 21 kilometres from the said city. Another 115 km or so (about 2 hours and 15 minutes by road) will take you to Chomon village where one may come across another deadly weapon, albeit of a different kind, in the making.

In fact, the village is just at the gate of the Air Force Station. In that typical decrepit Indian village, one will come across a hybrid housing structure. The poor inhabitants could manage to build it themselves and only with old discarded bricks. The outer walls are laid bare, there is no plaster. Despite the new developments, the kitchen portion of that household is still a mud hut. They have recently taken on a gas connection just three months ago. There is a hand pump, yes, but there is no toilet. Inside this 10x12 square feet arrangement you won’t find either a chair or a table – just two charpoys, that’s all.

Now why this particular dwelling be of any interest to anyone? From this very site has emerged India’s stellar defensive hope for the FIFA Under-17 World Cup, Anwar Ali.

How it all started

Like most of us, he would take to playing football casually. Initially, he veered towards cricket. A left-hand bowler and right-hand batsman, he stuck with it till about six years old. Then, having seen him play and having gauged his athleticism, his father - Razak - reasoned with him to switch over to football.


Anwar showed promise right from his childhood days
Anwar showed promise right from his childhood days

Razak, a soccer full back in his school days, held the opinion that Punjab players generally don’t go beyond the Ranji Trophy stage in cricket. To give his son a fair chance to go national, football was a better option. Anwar used to occasionally dabble with football but now he began to take it up exclusively.

He would cross over to the other-side of the local railway line about only half-a-kilometre from his residence and play with his school friends on his primary school yard. Seeing his son take up on his advice made Razak very happy indeed. However, not everything comes without an obstacle. His mother, Jatoon, on the other hand, was not too pleased.

Hailing from a cowherd family, Anwar was given the task of grazing the buffaloes and he would take them along and leave them near his playing ground. And almost every day his mother would chide him. She would be worried that if those buffalos wandered on to other neighbouring plots, there would be hell to pay. If only Anwar would listen. 

The primary school didn’t have any boundary walls and coincidentally, the adjoining open field was earmarked to be built into a stadium. Senior players used to practice there. When the ball would go out of play, Anwar would fetch it or kick it in. Slowly an interaction grew with them. They also began to take notice of this wonder boy’s style of play. 

Meanwhile, by the age of seven, he had started playing for Dashmesh Sports Club. Initially, it was a little difficult for Razak to support his son. To buy boots, jerseys and paraphernalia used to pinch him quite a bit. He did manage to get him five to six boots of basic nature, but things were to change soon.

Seeing Anwar’s immense talent and Razak’s penury, Dashmesh Sports Club decided to take over his playing needs. Here a mention can be made of Pawan Kumar Tinu, the area MLA. He had been a sports minister and he was the one who championed the completion of the stadium near the primary school. Seeing these boys from poor families play, he had instituted football coaches from Punjab Armed Police to train the boys. He, through his good offices, would also provide boots and kits for these kids. Anwar did benefit greatly from his initiatives.

His coming of age

Once when he was in Class VI, Anwar represented Adampur in a local match at Ramamandi near Jalandhar. Mahilpur Football Academy, the famous training facility established by the Punjab Government, had brought its own team there. The coach saw Anwar play and asked him to join the academy.

Generally, there is a tough trial procedure to get into this prestigious institution. Renowned defender and captain of the India national football team from 1965 to 1967, Jarnail Singh, is a luminary alumnus of this academy. Here, Anwar played for one and half years and even represented the academy at the national Under-12 tournament.

It may be quite interesting to note that all the while, Anwar played as a striker, his preferred position.

It would be soon that his position of play would change. The All India Football Federation (AIFF) spotted Anwar in that Under-12 tournament and took him to Goa. He made it to the Under-14 national team and went to Brazil and a few other countries with them. But there, his game became slow due to height issues. He continued as a striker in an Under-14 match against Brazil but then moved to left wing and then to full back during the exposure trip.

After two years in the Goa camp, he moved back to Mahilpur. But only after a couple of months, he was absorbed directly at the Minerva Academy and played there for quite a while, seven months to be precise. The owner and the coach of Minerva had already seen Anwar play when he was selected for the Punjab Under-15s which was immediately after his Brazil tour. He turned out for Minerva in the U-15 I-League.


Anwar at Minerva
Anwar at Minerva

Attracting eyeballs

An incident worth reckoning happened when he was at Minerva. Anwar had already played two matches, with the date of the third yet to be decided. Just so it happened that the date of the third match to take place in Mumbai was only a day before his elder sister’s marriage.

Razak was adamant in not letting his son go. So were Minerva in having him in their squad. The club picked Anwar in a car right from his door-step, flew him to Mumbai and brought him back right to his door step at 6 am on the very day the wedding was to take place.

During one of Anwar's matches, Sanjoy Sen, the current Mohun Bagan head coach, saw Anwar play in a game against the Tata Football Academy (TFA). He asked Anwar, then about 15 years old, to join in his youth summer camp at Durgapur. Though there were few detractors, saying why a Punjab boy should go play in Bengal, Razak ultimately let him go.

However, that stint lasted only about 3-4 months since Anwar was not at all comfortable with the situation. He would not get enough match practice having been side-tracked by coaches who preferred the local boys.

Hearing his plight Razak got him back without wasting much time. All the while, Minerva wanted to have their boy back. They wanted him to represent them in the Under-18 I-League. And there he played another 6-7 matches, till the Under-17 selections happened. But, not before another bit of drama ensued.

Getting into the national team

Anwar playing for India U-17s at the Lazio Cup (image source: Lazio Cup official website)
Anwar playing for India U-17s at the Lazio Cup (image source: Lazio Cup official website)

Apparently, the Under-17 team had been finalised but Minerva protested on Anwar's behalf, saying that the selection process was not right. They had taken Anwar to field him against TFA in a friendly. The AIFF saw Anwar and a few others and shortlisted five players for possible selection. Anwar ultimately saw himself take flight with the Under-17 team for their European exposure tour.

It has been a quick but eventful journey for Anwar. Predominantly a left-footer, Anwar is equally comfortable with this right foot, while his exceptional aerial prowess has exponentially improved after his growth spurt from 5’5” to 6.5” since joining the India camp.

There is a thing common with Abhijit Sarkar, the striker of the squad who hails from West Bengal. Like him, Anwar’s mother at 5’8” is taller than his father by a good three inches. Still a bit weak – he doesn’t take ghee as would be expected of Punjabis and mostly eats vegetarian. He is currently working on his core strength.

Funny enough, this fan of Lionel Messi and Real Madrid cannot ride a bicycle let alone a scooter or a motorbike but give him the rotund leather to chase and he will never falter. Now, isn’t that the most important thing?.

We all have hopes on our ‘Billa’, Anwar’s nickname because of his cat-eyes, as he certainly has his sight fixed tight on the cup.

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