EXCLUSIVE: Marconi Stallions’ Iraqi sensation Ali Abbas Al-Hilfi will be the next big thing to step up from state league to the A-League, writes Aidan Ormond.
Occasionally, in the rough and tumble of semi-pro footy at NSW Premier League level, a player catches the eye. Not for his gut-busting runs or hard tackling but for sheer quality of technique.
Last year, while at Belmore Stadium to check out a Sydney Olympic striker, a long-haired wing-back with laser-like crossing accuracy from both feet and a penchant for cracking set-pieces (he hit the bar twice) caught my eye. It was Shannon Cole.
Now, Ali Abbas Al-Hilfi is this year's next big thing. And you could argue the Iraqi midfielder, currently playing for Marconi Stallions, has an even better pedigree than the Sydney FC star. But more of that later...
Who better to ask about Abbas then the Stallion who plays behind the Iraqi flyer, former Central Coast Mariner and left back at Bossley Park, Vuko Tomasevic.
And according to the one-time Northern Spirit man, Marconi have a rare gem on their hands with their 22-year-old left sided Iraqi midfielder.
"I haven't seen many players with his technique and skill base in the whole [NSW] league - and even in the A-League," Tomasevic tells au.fourfourtwo.com.
"I know that's a big call but he's very, very clever. He's too quick with the ball and he really uses his body well. He's still in his early 20s but he's more advanced than most at his age in this country."
A stunning set piece goal on the opening day of the Premier League against Penrith set the template for Abbas - although as Tomasevic concedes, the Iraqi is now a marked man.
"Definitely he can make it in the A-League... he's got the ingredients necessary, it's really just a matter of him adapting to the style of game here," he said. "But I believe so that he can do a similar thing to what Shannon's done."
In the seven rounds since, Abbas has continued to show a quality rarely seen in the second tier competition. It's why wily Marconi supremo Lee Sterrey signed Abbas after five minutes of seeing him.
But in the NSW Premier League, that means there is no shortage of guerrillas looking to get tough with the Iraqi.
"He's got a small frame, so it's been a bit of a transition but he'll improve that physical side of his game by playing in the league," added Tomasevic.
"I think coming from the Middle East, it's a different type of football where the referee probably will give more fouls than here. Here, he does get man-handled a fair bit.
"I've had discussions with him and the opposition pretty much lay off the man on the ball as opposed to here where we're pretty much gung-ho and try to intimidate.
"It's just a matter of him getting used to the way we play."
And while Abbas's defensive side of his game is still being developed, a formation at the Stallions that features two holding midfielders gives Abbas licence to get forward and cause damage at every opportunity.
Abbas has been a key reason why the revamped Marconi - under the tutelage of A-League-quality Sterrey - have made a strong start to the season.
Currently they sit fourth just a point behind Manly and Sutherland and six points adrift of leaders Sydney United. It's been Abbas's touches of class that have helped the side recover from a disastrous season 2008 to become a top four side.
More than that, though, Abbas trains like a professional with up to seven sessions a week. The first team group trains around four nights a week and the Iraqi, along with a clutch of other foreign players at the club, top that up with regular daily sessions under Sterrey's supervision.
Things are looking good again at Marconi - a club with impressive facilities and a deserved reputation as a production line to the A-League.
However, that is still a sore point for the Stallions and the entire NSW premier league. Under the current guidelines, state league clubs are given $3000 in compensation for a player who signs with an A-League club.
And that appears an almost certainty in Abbas's case.
In 2007, Abbas memorably won the AFC Asian Cup with Iraq. Although largely a squad player, the experience of playing alongside Iraqi superstars such as Nashat Akram, Younes Mahmoud, Hawar Mulla Mohamed and Karrar Jassim would've been invaluable for the then 20-year-old.
Later in the year, Abbas was selected in the Iraqi Olympic team - a selection that ultimately lead to him playing in Australia.
Torn apart by war and sectarianism - his father had been killed in an explosion in Baghdad - Abbas and his Iraq Olympic team mates Ali Mansour and Ali Khadher fled the Iraqi Olympic team's Gosford hotel soon after losing 2-0 in a crucial qualifying match against the Olyroos in November 2007.
Abbas had talks with the Stallions at the time but returned to Iraq early in 2008, and after discussions with the Iraqi Football Union joined the Air Force Club in Baghdad.
But Australia made a strong impression on him. Earlier this year, Abbas was able to wrangle himself out of his Iraqi contract to play for Marconi.
"He's definitely up there with the top players technically, and tactically as well. He can progress to the next level. And the higher you go, the more intelligent a player he'll have around him," added Tomasevic.
"Playing in the premier league is all part of his transition into the A-League. It's just a matter of getting that opportunity.
"He's very humble, considering he's already played for his nation at Olympic and full senior level at such a young age."
An international quality player from Asia who wouldn't cost the earth; a naturally left-sided midfielder in his early 20s who could also play central and attract the hordes of footy-mad Iraqi fans in Australia. A-League clubs, what are you waiting for?
The Stallions play Sydney Tigers this Saturday night at Marconi Stadium, Bossley Park.