He can’t explain exactly how or why the thought came to him, but Sydney FC midfielder Ali Abbas says he somehow knew he was going to score upon his return after 13 months out.
Nine minutes after coming on as a second-half substitute, Abbas completed what can only be described as a fairytale comeback from a horrific knee injury when he was fed a brilliant back-heel by fellow substitute Matt Simon.
Facing Newcastle Jets goalkeeper Mark Birighitti, Abbas steadied himself before taking a shot on his non-preferred right foot, curling the ball around the keeper and into the net.
If the noise from the 15,000-strong crowd was loud when he came off the bench, the roar that greeted the goal from one of the club’s most popular players could have been heard for miles.
The shock goal secured a 2-0 win for Sydney and while disbelieving fans and players looked at each other in joyous surprise, Abbas seemed to have a premonition. He even knew where to run – straight to coach Graham Arnold.
“I had a [feeling about scoring] but I never thought it would come,” he said. “As soon as I passed the ball to him [Simon], I thought ‘Please, just pass the ball to me, because I’m on the edge of the box and I’ll be one-on-one with the goalkeeper’. I took my time, took my chance and I did it.”
But it was all just a blur for the Iraqi from the moment he was given the nod to enter the field of play.
“To be honest, I was so scared and excited to cross that line and as soon as I did, I forgot everything,” he said. “I just listened to what ‘Arnie’ wanted from us as a team and I think we’ve done a really good job. I was there to support my team and thank God everything came my way.”
As revealed by his coach after the match, Abbas confirmed it was those people bad-mouthing him, in person and on social media, that fuelled his desire to return.
“To be honest, it was all those people who said I would never come back and never be the same player as before,” he said. “That’s my motivation. People who doubted me. People who tried to put me down. But I tried to not listen to that, just to make that a motivation for myself and to hopefully I will continue to do that.”
Arnold also praised Abbas’ incredible work ethic in rehabilitation, remarking that while he thought Abbas might never play again, he was won over when the Iraqi international began training harder and longer than all of his teammates under the guidance of strength and conditioning coach Andrew Clark.
“I’ve been working really hard, over and over, with ‘Clarky’ and the medical staff – Elias [Boukarim], Stan [Ivancic] – Arnie and everyone,” Abbas said. “It’s not just been me, it’s all the players. We’re just trying to forget everything that’s happened, just to play and have fun.
“Everything came my way and thank God it did. Hopefully, next week it will be more comfortable playing football.”
Abbas finds it hard to pinpoint the lowest point in his rehabilitation from the incident, which infamously occurred during a Sydney derby in November 2014 after a tackle from Iacopo La Rocca, who has since joined Adelaide United.
“It’s hard to say because as soon as I got injured, I couldn’t walk,” he said. “Then the week after I had the operation, it was still so difficult to walk. You go from doing everything, being healthy and helping yourself and all of a sudden you lose that.
“Only after six months, I started running a little bit. Every day has been difficult for me but I had just had to forget it and focus more on my body and focus on coming back to play.”
Still, despite all the setbacks, Abbas says he never gave up hope – a decision vindicated by his comeback and goal on Saturday and a date with the Wanderers, at Pirtek Stadium, next weekend.
“I believe in myself. If you’re a good person, good things will happen to you, so that’s how I’ve focused – to be better person and a better footballer,” he said. “That’s why I’ve spent 12 months working on that and hopefully I can continue to work.”