Sport

Soccer player Ali Abbas on putting religion aside and playing to make people happier. By Richard Cooke.
Credit: MARK NOLAN / GETTY

Playing for peace: Ali Abbas, 29, soccer player

I don’t mind if people think of me as a refugee – but it’s better if they think of me as a footballer. Or they can call me whatever they want. I came here with a dream in my mind and everyone said, “Oh, you can’t do it, you can’t do it.” But I never let them get inside my head – I always try to do what I believe to be right. I worked really hard to get where I want to be. I’m not going to stop doing that.

Everyone knows the fans are crazy in Iraq. At the same time they love football, they’re very passionate about it, and that’s why we’re doing it, to make them happy. They always support you, wherever you’re playing. That said, if you lose, you’re in trouble.

I always think about football. That’s my life.

The feeling of Iraq winning the 2007 Asian Cup? Impossible to describe. It was really a big moment for me, for my country and my teammates. It was an unbelievable feeling. I didn’t play every game, but I played the final. The second half was the highlight of my whole career.

It was a very difficult time in Iraq. We couldn’t train at home, we had to train in Jordan for a couple of weeks, then Korea.

We made a promise. When we started, we thought we’d give it our best, maybe finish in the top four, or top eight. We couldn’t think about going on to win. But as soon as we beat Korea, we thought, “We can do it.” So everyone gathered around – we promised ourselves, and we promised the coach and staff, we have to do it for the Iraqi people back in Iraq. And thank God, we did it.

We never saw it about “this guy is from a different religion” – we always represent one country. To be honest, it doesn’t matter what religion you are, we’re playing football to make everyone happier. When you play against each other, we’re all human. So we never thought about this stuff.

Playing next to Alessandro Del Piero was a dream. To meet and play next to him… I mean, I grew up watching him. He’s such a great guy inside and outside and I was really surprised by how easy-going he was. It’s easy to chat to him, easy to talk to him, easy to have a joke with him.

What kind of joke? We keep the secret between us.

A great coach is about the team, not the individual. A coach like that can make the team like a family, and it will never break.

Confidence is something that can be taught.  But sometimes you need to train yourself to be confident in doing things. That way you’ll never disappoint yourself.

I try to not listen to the positive. I try to listen to the negative, and change it from negative to positive. I never get upset if someone tells me, “Oh, you didn’t do good today.” I will take it, go sit by myself, and fix it. A friend of mine back in Iraq, he used to tell me that every game you play, play it like it’s a final. So always when I go to the park and play, I imagine it’s a cup final or final game for me.

 I watch Ronaldo on YouTube every day. I wasn’t a big fan of Cristiano Ronaldo to be honest, but seeing the effort he put in three, four years ago, training really hard – I had so much respect for him. But Ronaldo, the Brazilian, he’s my hero. There’s a 35-minute clip of him, I watch it three or four times a week. I never get sick of it. You see his body… when he wants to go one on one, he does something different every time. Even now, some players couldn’t do that stuff.

My future hope for Iraq is simple. For the country to get back to safety, and for everyone to live in peace. Do you know what I mean?

 

This week’s highlights…

• Rugby union: World Sevens Series – Round 3

Saturday and Sunday, Wellington, New Zealand

• Soccer: A-League – Perth Glory v Melbourne Victory

Saturday, 6.40pm (AWST), NIB Stadium, Perth

A-League – Sydney FC v Brisbane Roar

Saturday, 7.30pm (AEDT), Allianz Stadium, Sydney

W-League grand final – Melbourne City v Sydney FC

Sunday, 2pm (AEDT), AAMI Park, Melbourne

• Cricket: Southern Stars v India, 3rd Twenty20 

Sunday, 2.30pm (AEDT), Sydney Cricket Ground

Australia v India, 3rd Twenty20 

Sunday, 7.15pm (AEDT), Sydney Cricket Ground

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 30, 2016 as "Playing for peace". Subscribe here.

Richard Cooke
is a journalist and writer for television. He is The Saturday Paper's sports editor.