Ali Abbas has never been afraid to spark a feud, but never before did that lead to complete isolation. At South Korean giants Pohang Steelers last season, he was sidelined completely from the first team and the club.
A new coach had arrived and wanted to clear out every foreign player on the books but offered minimal severance packages instead of the contractual amount. Most accepted those deals simply to escape. The stubborn Abbas stood firm but soon found himself persona non-grata.
He trained alone, wasn’t allowed near the team and was effectively stranded in South Korea. He turned up to the training ground to find the Steelers went abroad for a training camp in Thailand without telling him, abandoning him at the club’s door step. As he recalls, it was part of their plan to bully him out of the club without paying out the remainder of his contract.
It left him a foreign country where he couldn’t speak the language and nobody by his side. Isolated, Abbas turned to the man who had been by him in his darkest hour of need; Sydney FC’s fitness coach Andrew Clarke. When the Iraqi international faced a potentially career-ending knee injury, Clarke helped rehabilitate him and over the course of that year, the pair formed a very close bond. That continued this year, on the other side of Asia, when Abbas was again in turmoil.
And, it’s relationships like this which make it so difficult for Abbas to face his former club, coaches and teammates. After eventually reaching an agreement with Pohang, the 31-year-old joined Wellington Phoenix and is now set to play against Sydney FC for the first time since his departure. Already, the feelings are stirring about the prospect of walking into the opposite change room at Allianz Stadium.
“I have mixed emotions,” he said. “I was there for four years and it will be good to be back at Allianz but obviously I’ll be playing against Sydney. I’ll have mixed emotions but I have to go there and do my job.”
A player facing a former club is nothing new in the A-League where the salary cap and cautious player recruitment has led to a merry-go-round of transfers. However, for Abbas, Sydney FC represent more than just a former employer. Three years ago, a crunching tackle from then Western Sydney Wanderers midfielder Iacopo La Rocca ruptured Abbas’ anterior cruciate ligament and medial collateral ligament. The Iraqi’s season was definitely over, so too his hopes of playing in the Asian Cup and his hopes of ever playing professionally hung by a thread. There were times he wanted to quit, but Sydney FC showed faith in seeing out his recovery. That, Abbas says, will never be forgotten.
“I had a difficult time at Sydney [with injuries] but I had the support from the fans and the club. They’ve done a really good job. I don’t know what it’s going to be like to play there but obviously I have to represent my new club and defend the jersey,” he said.
For months, Clarke would take Abbas to Bondi Beach at 7am to run fitness drills to help the winger regain strength in his knee. Physio Elias Boukarim remained by his side for the 405 days Abbas laboured through an often unclear path back to playing.
Clarke, in particular, remained his confidant through Abbas’ dark spell in South Korea and it’s that bond that will make Sunday’s game at Allianz Stadium an emotional one for the former fan-favourite.
“When I was in [South] Korea, I was actually always in touch with them,” Abbas said. “I’ll never forget what they’ve done for me … I’ll never forget that. I’ve never played against them and for the first time, there will be plenty of emotions. The everyday people who do good things for you, you can never forget that. They’ll always be close to my heart.”