Going into the final quarter-final clash here at the FIFA U-20 World Cup Egypt 2009, which pitted United Arab Emirates against Costa Rica on 10 October in Cairo, fans expecting excitement to match that provided in the other three thrilling quarter-finals were not disappointed.
Indeed, it was a tie which swung from end-to-end and featured the tournament's latest goal - scored in the second minute of extra-time injury time by Marcos Urena. The UAE took the lead in the first half with a goal via Ahmad Ali but just four minutes later Costa Rica equalised with a header from Josue Martinez, Urena's dramatic late decider coming when penalties looked all but certain.
A hard-fought match between the Asian champions and their CONCACAF counterparts, UAE played perhaps their best football of the tournament and were in fact the better side for most of this match. However, it was their strikers' profligacy and the brilliance of Costa Rica goalkeeper Esteban Alvarado which prevented them from reaching the semis.
The UAE had a huge following made up both of their own fans and the Egyptians who had adopted them following the host's Round of 16 exit at the hands of Los Ticos. Even that provided little consolation for UAE captain Hamdan Al Kamali who, despite being undoubtedly one of the best players on the field, shouldered much of the blame for the mistake which allowed Costa Rica to score the winner.
"This is football, sometimes it's just not fair, that's part of the enjoyment, although the defeat is very painful there was nothing we could do about it especially as the winning goal was scored so late in the game," said Al Kamali, whose too-short pass to goalkeeper Yousif Abdulrahman undid his team. "I was jointly responsible along with our keeper and it was down to bad communication between us at the crucial moment."
UAE coach Mahdi Redha, meanwhile, was another to be hugely disappointed at his team's failure to reach the last four: "Defeat in this manner is very difficult to accept, we played extremely well and everyone knows that we should have gone through, but I am very happy with our performances in this tournament and I don't think I am exaggerating when I say that the UAE deserved a place in the semis."
The UAE had made an exciting start to the tournament, showing real grit and persistence from day one. They went two goals behind to South Africa in their first match but made an amazing comeback when scoring twice in the last three minutes to secure a draw. In the next match against Honduras, Ahmed Khalil's 41st-minute free kick was enough to earn them the win and a place in the next round. This allowed the coach to rest star man Theyab Awana for their final group match against Hungary which they went on to lose 2-0.
Awana was recalled for the next game and he subsequently led his colleagues to a 2-1 victory over Venezuela in the Round of 16. "We have equalled the best ever performance by an Emirati team in a FIFA tournament by qualifying for the quarter-finals: just as Ismaeil Matar's team did in 2003. But we're still hoping to go one further," said the player before the clash with Costa Rica.
Defeat in that game brought the curtain down on UAE's adventures in Egypt but we can certainly say that the Boys in White lived up to their supporters' expectations and can return home feeling justifiably proud of their efforts. Football in the UAE has a bright future in the hands of these young men and of course head coach Redha, the latter heralding a new era for the UAE who have previously relied on foreign coaches. What is more, look out for players like Khalil, Awana, Al Kamali, Ali Mabkhoot and Ahmed Ali making their debuts for The Whites' senior team in the very near future.
Remarkably, the UAE will also participate in the finals of the FIFA U-17 World Cup Nigeria 2009, set to kick off in a few days' time, further evidence that football in the Emirates has a very bright future.