ALL Ali Abbas heard when he was granted political asylum in Australia was that he would not play soccer again - certainly not professionally.
Abbas was 21, and along with two teammates, had skipped out of a Gosford hotel while on tour with the Iraqi under-23 team in 2007.
Although he had been given a new life, it was a life, it seemed, without soccer.
At first he didn't care. He was glad to be safe, away from his war-torn homeland, and simply wanted to work, make money and help his family.
But the more people told Abbas his soccer days were behind him, the more determined he became to prove them wrong.
Three years on, the livewire midfielder is not only earning a good living, he has emerged as a vital cog in the rejuvenated Newcastle Jets' push for a second A-League title.
"People kept telling me that I would not play soccer here," Abbas told said 90 Minutes after training yesterday.
"I was just going to work.
"But in my mind I saw a future.
"I was only 21 and I set myself the goal of doing whatever it takes to play soccer."
Initially thrown a lifeline by Marconi in the NSW Premier League, Abbas was signed by the Jets and is now in his second season in Newcastle.
He has gone from sharing a tiny apartment in the back blocks of Fairfield where he survived on his life savings and a modest semi-professional contract at Marconi, to a full-time deal with the Jets and driving a late-model BMW.
"I love it here," he said.
"When I first came to Australia, I lived in western Sydney. To be honest I love every part of Australia, but especially Newcastle. It is so quiet and the people are lovely here.
"Back in Iraq it is a hard life. It is a nice life here, but you still have to work hard to get something."
On the pitch, Abbas's transformation has been nearly as swift.
Recruited as an injury replacement for Shaun Ontong, Abbas made 17 appearances in his debut season, but only six in the starting side.
He has nearly doubled the amount of starts with 13 games left in this campaign and recently made the switch from the left wing to creative head of a diamond-shaped midfield.
"First year here was really difficult, I didn't know the system, what the coaches wanted from me, but now I know everything," Abbas said.
"I have grown up.
"Heaps of people think that I play in just one position, on the wing. Back in Iraq I used to play either behind the strikers or on the left or right.
"Before the Melbourne Heart game in Port Macquarie, Branko had a chat with me about playing in that [No.10] role.
"It was good to hear from the coach. He gave me confidence and trust."
Culina first noticed Abbas at Marconi and has since played a major role in the resurrection of the 24-year-old's career.
"He is still not the finished product, but he is learning every day," Culina said.
"He is learning to play with the ball a bit smarter. Initially, he always had to try and beat somebody where now he knows there are times when you have to play early.
"His defensive game has also improved which is very important in modern football.
"He has picked up in a number of areas and you expect that from a guy who has international pedigree and has been playing at this level for a year."
Off the field Abbas has also developed. He spoke little English and, given the circumstances, was understandably reserved when he arrived at the Jets.
"One thing I like about Ali - and I know the players have enjoyed it as well - is that he has integrated very well," Culina said.
"He didn't know anyone, his English at that stage wasn't the greatest, but he has really worked hard at being part of the team.
"I think that has helped him and given him the chance to forget about some of the dramas and problems he had back in Iraq."
Nowadays Abbas rarely has anything but a smile on his face. But the memory of darker times still simmer.
In 2007 he lost his father, who was in a car in downtown Baghdad when a suicide bomber struck, killing all occupants.
His death came not long after Abbas had returned with the Iraqi national team from their Asian Cup triumph, which included a famous win over the Socceroos.
Squad members were rewarded with a $US200,000 ($202,000) bonus, which Abbas used to buy a home for his family and set up a bakery for them to operate.
But the joy quickly turned sour.
"It was a very bad situation," Abbas said.
"I came back from the Asian Cup and players were starting to get big money. Some people wanted me to give them money. It was very bad.
"I was scared for myself and my family. If I moved away I was going to save my family. That is why I left."
Abbas's mother, five brothers and three sisters remain in Baghdad.
"I call them twice a week, sometimes three times," he said.
"Maybe next year I will get citizenship, then I will try and get my mother out here. I miss her and would like her to live in Australia."
Culina said Abbas earned the respect of his teammates almost instantly.
"They see a guy, one of their teammates, who has gone through the worst that anyone can go through," Culina said.
"This is the easy part for him, playing football, and that is why I think the best days are ahead of him."
Abbas's form has grabbed the attention of new Iraqi coach, German Wolfgang Sidka, who called him up for a friendly against Kuwait last month.
Sidka also wanted him for the recently completed Gulf Cup tournament in Yemen, but it did not fall on a FIFA date and the Jets, who had packed schedule, refused their request.
In the end, Abbas opted to withdraw from the Kuwait game as well, but has not lost hope of being selected for the Asian Cup in January.
"Hopefully I get selected, but if not maybe in the future, one or two years," he said.
There is also the matter of a new contract. Abbas is one of several high-profile players in the final months of their current deal.
He, like most up-and-comers, has aspirations of playing in Europe, but he has left that side of the equation to his management.
"I just know I have to play well," he said.
Like all projects, Culina would like to see Abbas stay at the Jets long enough to see him reach his peak.
"We know that we need stability and we want to try and keep as many of these guys as possible," he said. "But like I have said a number of times, the salary cap will dictate who we can and can't keep.
"We have invested all this time and effort and just when you think they are getting there they might be taken away or move for whatever reason.
"It would be disappointing, but let's hope it doesn't get to that stage."