Awana: a talented footballer who had ambition to become UAE's best

Former managers and officials paint a picture of Awana, a key member of the UAE's 'Golden Generation'.

Theyab Awana was a regular presence on the right flank for the age-group teams and regularly showed promise in his appearances for the senior national team.
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Ismail Rashid yesterday recalled the day in August when an unexpected visitor rapped on the door to his room during the national team's training camp in Austria.

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It was Theyab Awana, the 21-year-old midfielder.

"I remember it well," the former team manager said. "He knocked on the door and said he wanted to talk to me and, of course, I said 'yes'.

"And he said, 'What do I have to do to improve myself during the training and the game? I want to be an asset to the country.' That was how he thought.

"Most days, I met him before and after training, and he spent a lot of time in the gym trying to make his body stronger, doing even more than we had asked. He wanted to do more than the others."

In interviews yesterday, the day after Awana died in a car crash, a portrait emerged of a player committed to being the best footballer he could be, a happy young man with potential star quality who might have become one of the country's elite athletes.

"He was an important player and one of the players for the future," said Khaled Awadh, the assistant chief executive at the Al Wahda club, who saw Awana's Baniyas club pass them in the Pro League table last season.

"He was a young man who could have become a very good player with his club and the national team, but all we can say is that this is God's will."

Awadh said he discerned in Awana both raw talent and a footballing brain. "With his skill, he would have been very good, a midfielder who could play like a striker. And he was very smart."

Awadh conceded that Awana was known outside the country for one incident, the controversial back-heeled penalty he scored against Lebanon in a friendly match at Al Ain on July 17.

Theyab Awana: Career highlights

September 29, 2009: Scores in the 93rd minute to give the UAE a 2-2 tie with South Africa in the Under 20 World Cup.
November 12, 2009: Makes senior team debut with second-half appearance in friendly with Manchester City.
November 11, 2010: Goal in the 10th minute sparks the UAE to a 3-0 victory over Uzbekistan that clinches pool play championship at the Asian Games.
January 3, 2011: Scores the clinching goal in a 2-0 friendly victory over Syria.
July 17, 2011: Scores a back-heel goal, believed to be unprecedented in international football, against Lebanon.

Perhaps no more than 50 people were in the stadium, but the match was televised nationally, and video of the shot quickly went viral. Various clips of his shot posted to YouTube have been seen nearly 1.6 million times.

Awana became, arguably, the most famous footballer in UAE history, and his penalty sparked arguments over whether it was an example of creative daring or poor sportsmanship.

"What he did with Lebanon and that kick, it was the action of a young man," Wahda's Awadh said. "These young boys, they want to stay in the memory. But it was one play and it was finished; it had nothing to do with his reputation or his future."

Awana was substituted by the former UAE coach Srecko Katanec one minute after the kick, and when Awana came to realise that some considered the shot disrespectful, he apologised profusely, Rashid said.

The team manager reported that Awana said: "I did wrong. I made a mistake. Tell the team I'm sorry. I'm really, really sorry I did this thing."

Ultimately, Katanec accepted the apology; Awana was neither suspended nor fined, according to the Football Association.

He already was known to local football supporters as a key member of what has been termed the "Golden Generation" of UAE players. He was a regular presence on the right flank for the age-group teams that won the Under 19 Asian Cup gold medal in 2008, the Under 23 Gulf Cup last year and took the silver medal at the 2010 Asian Games.

Katanec brought Awana into the national team last December in the run-up to the Asian Cup. He seemed to be pushing for a place in the first XI during an impressive stretch in a friendly against Australia in January, only to suffer a leg injury when he was crudely taken down.

He missed the Asian Cup and did not return to the Baniyas line-up until March.

Injuries were a common theme in his career; he also sat out two games of the Asian Games, was unavailable for the World Cup qualifying defeats against Kuwait and Lebanon and had been hurt in the Olympic team's 0-0 qualifier draw in Australia last week.

When Awana was healthy and charging to the attack up the right flank, he looked like one of the nation's best players.

"He had something special," Katanec said. "He was unique in the team in this, dribbling one-on-one, and he was incredibly fast in the first five metres.

"Like anyone else his age, he had a lot of work to do to reach his potential, but technically, and in those first few metres, he was incredible."


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Previous tragedies: A look at other footballers who had their lives cut short in vehicle accidents

Olubayo Adefemi, the Nigerian international, pictured above, died at the age of 25 when he lost control of his car on a motorway in Greece last year. Adefemi, who played for Skoda Xanthi, was on his way to finalise his wedding preparations.

Costa Rica played at this summer's Copa America while mourning Dennis Marshall. The defender, 25, died along with his wife when his car collided with a lorry close to Costa Rican capital San Jose. Marshall, who played for Denmark's AaB, scored for Costa Rica five days earlier against Honduras in the Gold Cup.

Jimmy Davis, the promising Manchester United winger, died in 2003 when his car crashed on the outskirts of London. The 21 year old was on loan at Watford at the time. He was twice over the UK's drink-drive limit at the time of the accident.

Queens Park Rangers player Ray Jones was just 18 when he died, along with two others, in a collision with a bus in London in 2007. Jones, had made his QPR debut at 17 and had been called up to England's Under 19 squad.

Laurence Cunningham, the first black player to turn out for England at any level, was killed in a crash in Madrid in 1989. He was 33. Cunningham, one of the most gifted players of his generation, came to prominence at West Bromwich Albion and was the first English player to sign for Real Madrid.