It’s almost irrelevant what happens in this finals series, the A-League has already had its flashpoint moment of the season. The tiny frame of Hagi Gligor hopelessly trying to separate the raging Ali Abbas from Brendon Santalab during the heated March 8 Sydney derby will be lasting image from the ninth instalment of the competition.
It was etched into the minds of sports fans over the drawn-out saga of the ensuing racial abuse case that emerged in the fallout from that ugly post-game spat. Sadly, what may be lost within the turmoil is what deserves to be remembered the most – this was the year that Ali Abbas became a genuine star of the A-League.
Throughout all the 2430 dramatic minutes of Sydney FC’s season, Ali Abbas has been present. Whether it be at left-back, left midfield or in the middle of the park, the diminutive midfielder has weathered all the turbulence to emerge as the first name on the Sydney FC team sheet. It’s a stark contrast to the situation he was in at Newcastle, where he was released just two years ago. Although for those who’ve known Abbas the longest, his rapid rise this season is hardly surprising.
Lee Sterrey was the first Australian coach to take notice of the Iraqi winger after an email landed in his inbox asking if a former Iraqi international could trial with Marconi. It took Sterrey a matter of seconds to agree and even less time to make Abbas an offer upon closer inspection.
“Within two touches of the ball I took him off and I pulled him aside and the bloke that brought him up. I took him to the football office and within a few days he was signed to a full contract,” Sterrey says.
Sterrey was the first person to be asked for advice by his former teammate Frank Farina, who took the job at Moore Park. Farina liked Abbas’ training ground demeanour – happy, calm and driven – but wanted to know more about a player on game day.
“I said, ‘The boy’s a fighter, and every team needs a couple of fighters on the field, you need a few players that are prepared to roll their sleeves up and do the hard yards.’ Ali has skills as well as a willing to do the hard yards,” Sterrey says.
His performance and determination drew the attention of one of Australia’s leading player agents, a man with the likes of Lucas Neill and Luke Wilkshire on his books, and despite Abbas languishing in semi-professional football, Paddy Dominguez immediately saw potential.
“We’re very selective with the people that we manage, and Ali fit the bill in many criterias,” Dominguez says. “Ali just ticks all the boxes, he’s a very likable chap within his community, in the dressing room.”
It’s well documented that Abbas was one of three Iraqi players who left the team hotel to seek asylum in Australia, and what has been written since his defection from the national camp is an encouraging story of a refugee succeeding in his hew home. What’s often ignored is the fact the 27-year-old fled his homeland as a national icon. His part in the heroics of the 2007 Iraqi national team that won the Asian Cup gave hope to a fractured nation, something that will not be forgotten on the streets of Baghdad.
“All the players that played in the 2007 Asian Cup are stars in Iraq, still to this minute. Plus he wasn’t a person who sat on the bench, he played in that game and did something that everyone in Iraq remembers,” Iraqi FA co-ordinator Gath Muhana says.
It’s something of a sore point then that for his achievements in Australia, Abbas hasn’t represented his country since that fateful night in Jakarta in 2007. The constant upheaval of national team coaches did more damage than his departure from camp six years ago.Ten coaches have gone through the turnstiles of the Iraqi FA since Abbas last played, and his career in Australia was out of sight and mind for the stop-gap solutions.
That has now changed as Abbas’ form this season has captured the attention of the Iraqi football fans in the lead-up to the 2015 Asian Cup. Footage of his goals has gone viral in Iraq, and cries for his recall are getting louder within local media outlets and gaining the attention of those who matter.
“The Iraqi national team coaches are concentrating on Iraqi players playing outside of Iraq. Now he’s one of the people their eyes are on to be selected for the national team,” Muhana says.
Much like his stunning goal against Wellington Phoenix, his racial abuse case also was noticed up by the Iraqi community. According to Muhana, it wasn’t met with hostility but was simply an affirmation of the character trait Abbas first made of himself as a youth product.
“He’s a person who stands up for himself, he doesn’t keep quiet when there’s something wrong and he’ll go out there and do something about it,” Muhana says.
His agent says Abbas was dismayed with the process but that has failed to take the smile off the face of a man who has been through so much. Abbas is about to play just his second knock-out match since lifting the Asian Cup seven years ago, and it there is one thing Sydney loves more than a winner, it’s a cult hero. On Friday night, he can take another step towards becoming both.