It was a fatal text message that not only claimed the life of one of the Middle East’s brightest young footballers but also threatened to derail his nation’s push for an historic Olympic berth.
Already a full United Arab Emirates international at the age of just 21, Theyab Awana was returning home from a national team training camp last September when his car collided with a lorry on Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Zayed Bridge.
He died at the scene with his family later claiming he had been sending a text message at the time of the crash, prompting a nationwide campaign to end what is a widespread practice in the UAE.
Having earned international fame for this audacious backheel penalty in a friendly against Lebanon, Awana had only returned home from Australia three days before his tragic passing.
It was there, in Adelaide, that his immense potential was on full display with a typical flying display on the right wing earning him widespread plaudits and helping the Emirates to a scoreless draw.
It was the opening match of the final stage of qualification for London and with Awana absent the UAE started to stumble – another scoreless draw, this time at home to Uzbekistan, and a 2-0 loss to Iraq followed to leave the nation sitting rock-bottom of Group B.
Remarkably, three months after that loss FIFA announced that Iraq had fielded an ineligible player and awarded a 3-0 win to the UAE.
That triggered a run of results that saw Mahdi Ali’s side reel off wins against Iraq, Australia and Uzbekistan – the latter of those confirming its place at London 2012, the first time in nine attempts that it had qualified for the Games.
In fact, after the 1990 FIFA World Cup, it’s only the second time the nation will compete at a senior international tournament.
It’s also fair to say that the football side will shoulder virtually the entire Olympic hopes of the nation; the 22-member team comprises the bulk of the UAE’s 30-stong Olympic contingent.
While one key member won’t be present at the quadrennial event hopes are high that the side will be able to pull off a shock and reach the knockout stages.
With good reason, too.
Long a powerful force at youth level, this current crop is as good a group as the country has ever had and it has already been labeled the 'golden generation' of Emirati football.
A mission that first started to crystalise with the group that won the 2006 Under-17 Gulf Cup of Nations, the bulk of the side has graduated from the 2008 outfit that won the AFC Under-19 Championships (where Awana scored the winning goal in the quarter-finals) thereby earning the right to compete at the Under-20 FIFA World Cup the following year.
The side eventually lost to Costa Rica in the quarter-finals but only after extra-time, announcing the potential of this group of young UAE footballers to a global audience.
Essentially the same group then went to China in 2010 where it lost by a single goal to Japan in the final of the Asian Games and a loss on penalties last year at the Under-23 Gulf Cup rounded off its final major tournament preparation.
Six years in the making this side is at the peak of its powers and ready to surprise many over the next fortnight, particularly the bookmakers who have installed it as a rank outsider – a 151/1 shot alongside New Zealand and Honduras.
It is also, by some measure, the smallest nation in the men’s tournament.
With only 900,000 nationals in the UAE, the pool from which to draw footballing talent is tiny – making its qualification against the likes of Australia, Uzbekistan and Iraq all the more remarkable.
Placed alongside Great Britain, Uruguay and Senegal, the side will play the opening Group A match at Old Trafford and the stage is set for Ali’s side to show how far football has progressed in the Gulf nation.
A highly regarded mentor, Ali recently spoke to The National newspaper of his approach.
“We don’t play indivdually, we play as a team," he was quoted a saying.
"We have our style of play and we are close to the South American national teams, the way that they play because we have the same bodies, the same coordination and speed and the quality of our technique makes us similar to them. We play very compact and we try to play as a team and play our style.”
“You have to choose the right approach. You must make a good start, and if you defend properly, sooner or later you will get one or two chances and if you take those chances, you have a chance even against the best teams in the world.”
Ali’s squad selection has certainly enhanced the prospects of taking those chances – the mainstays of the core group of the past half decade are all there but added to the list are three overage players in goalkeeper Ali Kasheif, midfielder Ismail Al Hammadi and most importantly, the mercurial Ismail Matar.
After bursting to prominence when he won the Golden Ball Award at the 2003 Under-20 World Cup the Al Wahda forward, now 29, has long been viewed as one of the most accomplished frontmen in Middle Eastern football.
It’s his partner in front of goal, though, who perhaps has an even more lethal presence.
Player of the Tournament at the 2008 Under-19 triumph and a former winner of the AFC’s Young Footballer of the Year title, Ahmed Khalil is a regular for the senior national side and his powerful presence in front of goal should make many in the United Kingdom sit up and take notice.
In front of first-choice goalkeeper Kasheif will be a back four of Abdulaziz Sanquor, Mohammed Ahmed, Abdulaziz Hussein and, prominently, defender Hamdan Al Kamali who spent the second half of last season on loan at Lyon and who is the side’s captain.
The central midfield pair of Khamis Esmail and Amer Abdulrahman combine grit and flair while Al Hammadi and Omar Abdulrahman appear to have won the race for the wide midfield berths.
One of three Arab nations competing in the men’s tournament, a potential obstacle has seemingly been removed in the past few days with team officials confirming that the playing group will not have to observe Ramadan, which began last Friday.
Ali spoke of the fasting requirements as being, “like giving someone half a tank of fuel and asking them to compete against someone with a full tank” while UAE FA President Yousuf Al Serkal confirmed that the players will have the choice of whether or not to observe Ramadan.
The final word though should go to Ali – the 47 year old who has been at the helm of this exceptional crop of young players since the AFC title four years ago.
As the final stage of qualification began in Australia he told his players that he’d had a vivid dream come to him one night about London but that he wouldn’t reveal what it was until the final match of qualification had finished.
So when all was done, in Tashkent this March he spoke of how he’d seen a double-decker bus with the side in it travelling through the streets of London during the Olympics.
Suddenly an unknown force had crushed the bus; Ali standing outside watching, his players trapped inside – only for them to emerge safely, one-by-one, moments later.
He said he knew then that this side would make history.
London 2012 has given women's football in the UK an 'unprecedented platform' on which to create a lasting legacy, according to the Football Association's head of national game Kelly Simmons.