Ali was bristling with nervous excitement. Dressed in his favourite football club’s colours – Manchester United’s red jersey and white shorts – he couldn’t stop smiling as he fidgeted with his knee-length black football socks, shifting restlessly from one foot to the other. Squinting in the glare of popping flashlights, he high-fived friends, acquaintances – anyone he could see.
It was approaching 12 noon on a cool, crisp September day and standing in the hallowed players’ tunnel at the Manchester United Football stadium in Old Trafford, the 13-year-old waited expectantly with eight other boys and two girls for the golden moment – accompanying his dream football team to the pitch for the start of the much anticipated match between Man United and Leicester City.
‘Today isn’t my big day. It’s my biggest day. I’m so excited. I’m going to score two goals – no 10 goals,’ says the boy, who was born with Down’s Syndrome.
The Dubai-based teenager is passionate about football and has been playing the game ever since he could kick a ball. He had been on cloud nine from the moment he heard he was chosen from the UAE as part of Chevrolet’s annual Beautiful Possibilities programme, which honours 11 children from across the world with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be mascots at a Man United football match.
Now, in a culmination of a week’s football-related activities in the English city, Ali, sporting an oversized jersey with ‘Chevrolet’ emblazoned on the front and ‘Blind’ – for footballer Daley Blind – on the back, was waiting for his chance to walk on to the perfectly manicured grass hand in hand with a Man United player.
He could hear high-pitched shrieks, excited screams and reverential club anthems booming through the spectacular stadium as a mind-boggling 75,256 adrenaline-charged football fans waited for referee Mike Dean’s whistle to signal the start of the match.
Behind Ali, Daniela and Jorge (both from Colombia), Oscar from Mexico, Haoyin and Junkin (both from China), Ryan from the UAE, Jeongu and Homin (both from South Korea) and twins Qassim and Ruqaya from the US were also awaiting their big moment under the stadium’s bright lights that had already come on under the partly cloudy sky.
‘I’m a bit nervous,’ admits Ruqaya, masking her nervousness with a smile, her arms crossed over her jersey that bore the name of Ibrahimovic. ‘I still can’t believe I’m here... as a Chevrolet mascot of Man United. It’s a dream come true.’
Next to her, Qassim, her twin brother, stared wide eyed at the tunnel’s exit through which they would be walking in just a few minutes. ‘I can’t wait. This is truly the best moment in my life,’ he says.
Little did they know that it was only going to be getting better.
At 12.30pm on Saturday, September 24, to the sound of thunderous applause, the 11 kids, each holding the hand of a player who was wearing a match shirt with the name of his mascot on the back, emerged from the tunnel and marched to the centre of the field. Standing before the capacity crowd, the kids had an ‘oh wow’ moment when each player removed his shirt and presented it to their mascot, replicating one of the game’s most respected sporting traditions.
Later, at half time, the kids would even get a chance to shoot goals with Chevrolet’s mascot Fred the Red posing as the goalkeeper.
Jeongu, a mascot from South Korea who led Lingard on to the field, would later say, ‘I still can’t believe I was out there, in front of thousands of people. It’s an unforgettable day.
‘What was passing through my mind while I was out there? I was thinking one day I’ll be out there playing football for this club.’
It is to trigger just such emotions and to encourage children to believe that they can realise their dreams, however seemingly impossible they may appear, that Chevrolet devised the Beautiful Possibilities programme.
‘Football inspires the kind of passion in people around the world that can transcend cultural and political differences and unite communities in a transformative way,’ explains Tim Mahoney, chief marketing officer of Global Chevrolet. ‘For our children, it’s a game that teaches them that anything is possible through hard work and dedication.’
Although this is the third consecutive year that children have received the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be mascots and meet, interact, learn a few skills and even kick a ball with football legends in Manchester, Chevrolet actually set the ball rolling in 2012 to unite communities through the world’s most popular game.
‘Football is one game that children can play just about anywhere.
‘We know that it has the power to unite communities and bring people closer. That’s a reason we wanted to be associated with the game,’ says Tim.
The children were selected from various soccer academies around the world because they ‘embody the spirit of the play and have embraced football in a way that has changed their lives,’ he says.
Junkai Zhao is one such kid. A mascot from China, the eight-year-old’s dream is to play like his hero Man United’s Wayne Rooney. A talented left winger in his local football team in Chengdu, China, Junkai was elated when he was chosen to be a Chevrolet mascot. ‘I have been reading everything about Man United – its history, the players, the stadium… I have been reading so many books on the team.
‘My family, too, loves football,’ says the young boy, hours after he led his hero on to the field.
His father Zhao Min agrees. ‘I used to play football. So now when my son had a chance to actually visit Manchester and see his – and my – favourite team in action, I think it was a toss-up who was more excited,’ says Zhao, who accompanied his son on the trip. (Chevrolet arranged for one parent of each mascot to accompany their kid on the trip to Manchester.)
The day before the match, the 11 mascots had the chance of attending a meet-and-greet session with the Man United manager José Mourinho and his players at the club’s hallowed Aon Training Complex.
‘I can’t tell you how amazing it was to see and shake hands with the footballers... my stars,’ says Junkai.
Another mascot, Jeongu, 11, from South Korea, had the opportunity to interview Mourinho about his life as a manager. After the initial autograph-signing and picture-taking with the footballers, stars such as Paul Pogba, Jesse Lingard and Memphis, along with former player and current Man United legend Quinton Fortune, passed on advice to the youngsters on taking penalties, dribbling and how to celebrate a goal. ‘Kicking a ball with Pogba and actually shooting a goal was just awesome,’ says Junkai. His father smiles proudly. ‘My son is going to remember this for the rest of his life.’
Zhao Min isn’t the only parent who is chuffed about his kid having met football heroes up close.
‘I’ve been visiting Old Trafford since I was a kid,’ says Irishman Ronan Slattery, father of 11-year-old Ryan, the other mascot chosen from the UAE. ‘I like football. Now it’s almost surreal to see my son kick a ball on Old Trafford and interact with football legends.’
Watching the 11 mascots from across the world laughing and interacting, Ronan, who works for a software firm in Dubai, admits he is fascinated how a game like football can unite children from different cultures. ‘That is the power of football,’ he says.
Els Maria, mother of Ali from the UAE, agrees. ‘Football has helped my son who has Down’s syndrome immensely. It has helped his confidence, made him more sociable... do you know that he even acts as a coach to a child in Dubai? Few things give him greater joy than donning his football kit and heading off to play every evening.
‘When he was chosen as a Chevrolet mascot he was flying high. He has been talking only about the sport ever since we reached Manchester,’ she says, proud to see her son socialising, both with fellow mascots and with the footballers.
Of his visit to the UK, Ali says, ‘I am very happy to be here. I want to show people around the world that I’m a special needs boy, but I can play this sport well.’
Football fever had clearly gripped everyone – from the mascots and members of the media, to the organisers and the general public – during the excitement-filled week in Manchester Chevrolet pulled out all stops to ensure that the kids and the parents who accompanied them to Manchester would have the time of their lives, packing the itinerary with football and football-related activities.
‘From the moment we landed in Manchester, we’ve been enjoying ourselves… playing with other mascots, interacting with football legends, learning new football skills, visiting the football academy and museums… It’s been the best week of my life,’ says Oscar, 10, from Mexico.
Born with a rare hip condition, Oscar had to undergo two high-risk surgeries before the age of two.
‘He was told he would probably never walk or run like a normal child,’ says his mother. But the moment he could stand upright, he began kicking a football and his love for the game continues. ‘I think Oscar overcoming his disability was not a miracle, but it was the passion, the perseverance and love for football that made the difference,’ says his mother.
Chevrolet surprised Oscar with the news of being chosen as a mascot while the little boy was having dinner with his family in his hometown of Guadalajara.
‘I still remember the day Man United legend Quinton Fortune arrived at our door to announce that Oscar was chosen as a mascot. He couldn’t believe his ears and wouldn’t stop running around the house in excitement,’ says his mother.
Now, meeting up with ever-cheerful Quinton, Oscar is elated.
The youngster is not alone. ‘Since we’ve come here, we’ve been playing football, seeing so many wonderful places... it’s like a fantastic dream,’ says Jeongu, the 12-year-old Chevrolet mascot from Incheon, South Korea.
Born with sensorineural deficiency that left him with severe hearing loss, he had to have two cochlear implants. ‘Football is my passion,’ he says, grinning with happiness to be in the place he has been dreaming about.
So what has been the highlight of the trip to Manchester?
‘Meeting my heroes,’ he says. ‘And yes, hearing the sound of the ball being kicked. I love to hear the sound of the ball being kicked.’
For the mascots, one of the highlights of the slew of pre-match events was a Manchester United Soccer School’s session with club legends Nemanja Vidic, Denis Irwin, Gary Pallister, Gary Bailey and Quinton Fortune.
‘I picked up quite a few tricks from the legends – including how to dribble and how to shoot while on the run,’ says Ryan from Dubai.
When the legends were not teaching the kids tricks with the ball on the field, they were busy imparting lessons on the values of sportsmanship, fair play and how to boost self-confidence. The mascots were also given an exclusive behind-the-scenes tour of Old Trafford and a tour of the Man United players’ dressing room.
‘I actually had the chance to touch the jersey of one of my heroes Pogba,’ says Haoyin from Guangzhu, China. ‘I’ve got a picture of that moment, which I will be showing all my friends back in China.’
Not surprisingly, it was not just the kids who were having a ball.
‘All these 11 kids are such smart young people, talented and passionate about the game. Ali, for instance is such a vivacious, energetic young man. A bundle of energy, during the few minutes of rest after a session, he would run up to me and insist on giving my bald head a massage,’ says Fortune, laughing. Ali’s mother Els who is watching her son squeeze the footballer’s forehead, gently admonishes the boy to ‘stop worrying Quinton’.
Overwhelmed to see her son interacting and socialising with people and enjoying himself on the football field, she says, ‘I wanted to show that even though Ali is a special needs child, he has abilities. He can be a role model and an inspiration to several other such kids and to their parents, especially in the Middle East. We hope that he and children like him will have more such opportunities to prove that they can overcome challenges.
‘I’m so happy that Ali has truly come into his own here. He is proof that if you have the mentality to accomplish anything, you can.’
Chevrolet’s Tim Mahoney echoes her thoughts. ‘The 11 children chosen from around the world as mascots this year truly embody the never-give-up spirit. We are proud to honour these remarkable children,’ he says.