At a press conference in New Delhi on Tuesday, India’s Under-17 football team’s coach Luis Norton had some interesting words to say on his young prodigies’ chances at the FIFA U17 World Cup which begins in just under 10 days time.
“In football, there are no impossibilities and we will enter the field like lions to try and win the game," the 63-year-old Portuguese remarked.
In the country’s first ever foray into any FIFA World Cup, albeit a qualification secured due to being the host nation, 21 of its best young football starlets will have to be the lions that Norton envisages.
One of them is Anwar Ali, not to be confused with his 33-year-old namesake plying his trade at ATK. The teenage Anwar’s similarities with the former India senior football team regular do not just end there. He too hails from the northern state of Punjab while also occupying the same position – central defence.
Anwar was born in Adampur, a small town in the district of Jalandhar, most famous as the location of the second largest Indian Air Force base in the country.
The only kid from Punjab to make the cut in Norton’s final squad for the showpiece event, Anwar is one of four players from Minerva Punjab FC who will put on the Indian jersey come October.
Champions of the All India Football Federation's (AIFF) Youth League two years running, Minerva Punjab had caused a bit of an upset when they beat the Indian Under-17 team in a practice match at Goa in March this year.
It was a period where Norton had just taken charge of the colts following the departure of German coach Nicolai Adam. In a bid to augment the talent pool available to his disposal, the Portuguese had insisted on holding further trials and friendly ties upon taking the reins of the squad in March.
Norton was impressed with four of Minerva Punjab's youngsters in his side’s 1-0 loss and called them up to join his preparatory squad. Four of them being – Anwar Ali, Jackson Singh, Mohammad Shahjahan and Nongdamba Naorem.
Coming into a squad which had already been together for the greater part of two years could have been daunting for any youngster but Anwar became one with the group instantly.
“I had no problem whatsoever (settling in). I gelled with my new teammates within a week,” he says.
Being a part of the national setup was not new to the 17-year-old central defender as he was in the India Under-14 squad in his younger days, under the watchful eyes of Narayana Menon from Kerala.
It was Menon who was instrumental in the transition of Anwar, who had started his football journey as a striker, to a defender.
“In 2012-13, I was with the U-14 Indian squad. The coach was Narayan Menon Sir from Kerala. He was looking for left-footed players amongst the squad and since I was one, I was picked to play the left full-back role. Before that I had always played as a striker,” the Adampur boy remarks about that transition.
In a sport where most of the players are still primarily single-footed, Anwar grasped the virtues of being two-footed at an early stage in his football development.
“There are many players who cannot use their left-foot, but I am comfortable with both my feet,” he says.
The six feet plus tall defender is among the tallest members of the India squad and will be a physical and aerial threat in both the penalty boxes.
After his early introduction to the national fold in the Under-14s, Anwar would be let go by the AIFF Academy, a decision which would lead to him returning back to his home state to join the famed Mahilpur academy before being a part of the Minerva FC Academy in Chandigarh.
Anwar, when asked about Luis Norton de Matos' persona, he only had good things to say. “Norton Sir is very friendly coach and he is not the angry kind,” he quips.
“He keeps an eye on every player and looks out for what is going on in our lives. He is kind of a mentor to us,” Anwar remarks about team COO and former India striker Abhishek Yadav who was crucial in the defender being selected in the U17 team after spotting him in U16 I-League final.
Norton and Yadav will have a huge task at hand to prepare the boys mentally before their appearance on the biggest stage in their football careers so far, a prospect which is not even an iota close to the kind of pressures the county’s youngsters have been exposed to so far.
With the increased international attention and the added media scrutiny, the task of backing up the expectations of the country - the so-called ‘sleeping giant’ of world football, will not be easy.
All of that though is not going to perturb Anwar in any way. “I have never played in such stadiums earlier in front of so many fans but the expected pressure is normal, I am used to dealing with it,” the defender says.
The thought of playing in a FIFA World Cup probably never arose in the mind of a much younger Anwar, who was addicted to cricket since his childhood days. It was, in fact, his father who nudged him towards the direction of the world’s most popular sport.
“I was interested in cricket since an early age though my dad was a football fan. So I would accompany my dad to some football games and that is how I got into the sport.”
Luis Norton and a nation of over a billion have much to thank his father about when Anwar Ali takes the field for India against the USA at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium on October 6, for he will one of the key pieces in the jigsaw as they take on the world’s best backed with the most impossible of odds.
Watch Anwar Ali and the India U17 team in action on Sony Ten 2 and Sony Ten 3 - the official broadcaster of the FIFA U17 World Cup!