x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Gulf footballers play in Theyab Awana's memory - but no Maradona

Kuwaiti and Emirati footballers hold exhibition match in memory of Emirati national team player who died recently - but fans hoping to catch a glimpse of coach Diego Maradona were surprised to find no sign of him.

KUWAIT CITY // Kuwaiti and Emirati footballers past and present held an exhibition match in Kuwait last night in memory of the Emirati national team player who died in a car crash last month.

The friendly game between teams of current and retired Gulf footballers was organised to raise money for a charity chosen by the family of the late Theyab Awana.

However, fans who had hoped to catch a glimpse of Diego Maradona - the coach of Dubai's Al Wasl team, who was due to attend the game - were surprised to find no sign of the Argentinian legend.

"We're disappointed," said Jawad Saud, the vice president of Salmiya Sports Club, the venue where the game was played. "We all wanted to get photographs taken with him."

Mr Saud said Hattrick Sports, the company organising the game, had billed Maradona to attend.

Mr Saud did not know the reason for Maradona's absence, but had heard that "he sent his apologies".

The Kuwaiti press had eagerly reported the arrival of Maradona throughout the day.

Football matches in Kuwait - like most of the Gulf - often attract sparse crowds, but the three Kuwaiti dinar (Dh40) cost of the tickets did not put off some 400 citizens from attending last night. For many, it was their first experience of a live game in Kuwait.

"He's the reason I'm here," said Bader Al Kandari, a 14-year-old high school student at the stadium, of the Argentinian legend. "I've heard rumours that he wasn't coming, and I'm very sad."

Several of the crowd wore Argentine football jerseys.

Two dozen children with pictures of Awana on their T-shirts unfurled a banner urging residents not to use their phones while driving - as police suspect Awana was doing when he died. He was driving to Abu Dhabi after a training show with the national team in Al Ain. Besides his national duties, he also played in the Pro League with Baniyas.

But for some, last night was all about Maradona.

"If Maradona doesn't show, I will cry," said Omar Al Mutairi, a Kuwait National Petroleum Company employee, before the game. "If he doesn't come, we will leave immediately."

Mr Al Mutairi said even though Kuwaitis take the deaths of their fellow Gulf citizens very seriously, it was surprising to hold a testimonial for the dead Emirati player in Kuwait. "I definitely think they held this game to try and get Maradona to visit the country."

Others were less sceptical, including Ahmed Awana, the father of the deceased player. "It's beautiful what they did; the two countries are like brother and sister. It shows how close we are," the bereaved father said.

"It's not a big issue" that Maradona couldn't come, because "it's up to him", the father said. "Maradona came to my house after what happened and we spoke for half an hour. He was really sad about what happened."

While visiting Awana's family in Al Rahba after the death, Maradona said he would do all he could to support them.

"Football is about more than just goals and numbers, it's about passion and compassion," Maradona said.

jcalderwood@thenational.ae