Abbas's incredible 3322 days since playing for Iraq

Ali Abbas's last international appearance was memorable for Iraqi fans - the Lions of Mesopotamia won the 2007 AFC Asian Cup with a 1-0 victory over Saudi Arabia in Jakarta.

Ali Abbas

Ali Abbas playing for Sydney FC Source: Getty Images

Abbas was just 20 years old at the time, coming off the bench in the 89th minute to replace Bassim Abbas for the final few glorious minutes.

“I didn’t play every game, but I played the final. The second half was the highlight of my whole career,” he said earlier this year. 

Nine years, one month and three days later Abbas will make a return to the national team, a vastly different man to the one who stepped onto the Gelora Bung Karno Stadium in Indonesia's capital in 2007. 

After being cruelly denied the chance to represent Iraq at the 2015 Asian Cup in his adopted country of Australia, it is Down Under where Abbas will make his return when the Iraqis face the Socceroos at nib Stadium in the opening match of the third round of 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifying.

Abbas’s return should have come two years earlier, called up to the Iraq squad for the Gulf Cup in late 2014, with one eye firmly on selection for the 2015 Asian Cup in Australia. 

But he would never get the opportunity to play in either tournament after being felled by Italian midfielder Iacopo La Rocca in a fiery opening to the Sydney derby in November 2014. 

This was no ordinary injury, with Abbas rupturing his anterior cruciate ligament, medial cruciate ligament and tearing his meniscus, sidelining him for well over 12 months. At one stage there were even fears he wouldn’t play football again. 

"I had that fear but just mentally I had to try and think I would comeback and not tell myself 'I can't do this',” he said at the time. 

“I had to be a man and if somebody tells me that I can't do this, I will show them. I had to ignore people saying I won't come back and if they said it, I used it as motivation to prove them wrong." 

It’s only fitting that his international return would come against Australia in Australia, his adopted home, and a place that still feels very much like home. 

“It does to me,” Abbas told the media on Wednesday with a typical broad smile. “But obviously [I was] born there and I have to play for Iraq and I can’t wait to put the jersey on. 

“To be honest, I was a little bit excited because we don’t want to play against each other. It is what it is [though] and [I’m] very happy to be here and play for Iraq. 

“It’s going to be a good time for me and Iraqi boys.” 

At age 30 Abbas is one of the older ‘Iraqi boys’ in the current squad as coach Radhi Shenaishil, back for his third stint as Iraq manager after success at the 2015 Asian Cup, where he took Iraq to the semi finals before being beaten by South Korea, looks to usher in a new era, with 17 of the 23 players aged 25 or under. 

Veterans Mahmoud (who has retired and returned so many times over the last few years everyone has lost count), Noor Sabri and Salam Shaker have all retired in recent times, with a new generation spearheaded by Europe-based Ali Adnan, Yaser Kasim and Dhurgham Ismail ready to lead the team forward. 

Not that the process of generational change has been smooth, however. Nothing ever is with Iraq. 

Kasim famously had a very public bust up with Mahmoud during the second round of qualifying and walked away from the team, before being coaxed back. The Swindon Town midfielder was one of the standouts at the Asian Cup last year and is an important part of the team. 

Adnan, dismayed with the shambles that is the Iraq FA, announced immediately after the Olympics in Rio that he was retiring from international football, but he too has been coaxed back in quick time and will line-up against the Socceroos tonight. 

While in the dugout the recent re-appointment of Shenaishil is the seventh change of coach since the last meeting between Australia and Iraq in June 2013. 

But the remarkable thing about Iraq is that despite all the challenges they face, whether away from football in their own war-torn country, or self-made disasters that seemingly occur every few months, they find a way to produce on the pitch. 

They’ve won the Asian Cup, qualified for the Olympics and exceeded expectation time and time again, but the one box that remains un-ticked is World Cup qualification. It’s hard to top that steamy Jakarta night in 2007, but qualifying for a World Cup sure would go close. 

Whether they succeed this time around remains to be seen. They’ll face incredibly stiff opposition in Australia, Japan, UAE, Saudi Arabia and Thailand – who they twice drew 2-2 with in the second round of qualifying. But you can be sure they’ll fight and give it their all. It’s what they do best. 

Much like Abbas in his fight to return from injury, the more people say they can’t the more they want to prove people wrong. 

A first win over Australia since 2008 would be typical of the Iraq story, and would be a just reward for Abbas who has endured and survived the tumultuous 3322 days between his tenth and eleventh cap for his country.

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Published 1 September 2016 at 11:11am
By Paul Williams