It's not fun when Lallianzuala Chhangte runs at you. Even under the best of circumstances. And these are very much not the best of circumstances. It's the 88th minute and you're tired. This is your first competitive match in three months. In fact, it's your debut in India's top division. You're playing a role you're not entirely familiar with. Up against you is a fresh, has-a-point-to-prove Chhangte, introduced off the bench late in the second half. He's running at you with that unique blend of speed, directness, and power that usually makes defenders simply wilt away. Usually.
You stand your ground, show him away from goal, before accelerating and stepping in front of him to simply shield the ball. Chhangte challenges right back, but neither the ball nor you move an inch.
You see, you are Anwar Ali, and you don't do wilting.
If Ali had, he wouldn't be here, playing for FC Goa in the Indian Super League. After all that he's had to go through to get here, a charging Chhangte must have been such a welcome sight.
Jonathan Selvaraj has detailed Ali's journey here and here, but this is the TL;DR version -- Anwar Ali had starred in India's Under-17 World Cup campaign in 2017. He had, as is the norm, played for Indian Arrows in the I-league. Having impressed, Mumbai City had signed him. Which is where it was discovered he has a heart condition known as Hypertrophic Myocardiopathy (where the heart muscle wall becomes abnormally thick and affects the pumping of blood). Doctors concluded he couldn't play again. The All India Football Federation medical committee barred him from even practicing with a professional club.
For two years he suffered. He fought with the administrators and the doctors, trying to convince them he was good to play. He changed his diet, his way of living to minimise the risk to his heart. He went to court. He did all this as he watched his friends and age-group teammates establish themselves in top teams across the nation.
Even after he finally convinced the AIFF's medical committee of his fitness, even after he submitted an affidavit absolving anyone else of any responsibility should the worst happen, Ali had had to wait before the ISL dream came true.
He played in the Himachal Pradesh and Punjab state leagues. He played in the I-League qualifiers and the Durand Cup with Delhi FC. After signing with FC Goa, he couldn't play with them immediately, because they couldn't register him before January. So he had stayed with them in their bio-bubble, practicing with the main team but not kicking a competitive ball since September. Not that an untrained eye would have figured that out on Saturday.
Anwar had appeared a good fit for Goa when they signed him. Whether under previous coaches Sergio Lobera or Juan Ferrando, or current director-of-football-plus-coach Derrick Pereira, the club have for long asked their defenders to play out from the back. Ali has always been comfortable with the ball at his feet.
None of this takes into account the sheer pressure he was under.
There were a lot of people Ali wanted to prove wrong. There were even more people rooting so hard for his success every, small positive on the pitch was vociferously celebrated. This story, for instance, was half-written before Ali even kicked a ball -- because the mere act of him being there is such a monumental triumph of human endeavour.
Ali, though, will only want to be judged by what he did on the pitch. That is, after all, why he fought the battles he did.
And on the Bambolim GMC Athletic pitch, he produced a mixed bag of a performance.
For someone who was playing their first match at the level, after sitting out two crucial development-age years, he was remarkably comfortable. Only two players on the pitch attempted more passes and only four had more touches of the ball - his teammates looked for him regularly, and trusted him on the ball.
He made mistakes off it, though, most of it positional. Playing on the right of a back three, Ali at times looked like he had wandered a little too wide, a little too high up the pitch. This meant that on the rare occasion Chennaiyin countered, he struggled to get back into position.
He also survived a potentially narrative-killing scare, a handball appeal just before half time. It appeared he had misjudged the flight of the ball and under very little pressure had controlled it with his arm inside his own box. The error was poor, but the nerves were understandable.
In the second half, he had almost nothing to do defensively till Chhangte came along and then he rose to the challenge admirably.
Now, truth be told, Ali couldn't have asked for better opposition on the day. For large swathes of the match, Chennaiyin abandoned the concept of attacking and simply stood around in two banks of five deep in their own half. He is unlikely to have it this easy again. The league has plenty of attacking talent and this season has been particularly rough on defenses. He won't mind though.
Anwar Ali has never settled for comfort before, and he isn't about to start now, not when his dream has just kicked off.