DUBAI // From high above the stands, Wayne Rooney stared menacingly down at the ground. Below, a group of starry-eyed teenagers kept glancing back in awe. The England and Manchester United player's Nike commercial, in which the striker shaves his head in preparation for action, played non-stop on a giant screen at Dubai Sports City's cricket stadium, yet the 60 odd youngsters, all dreaming of a ticket to Old Trafford, could not get enough of their favourite player.
"I was enjoying looking at him all the time, shaving his hair," said Faris Hassan, a Palestinian student at American University of Dubai. "I might shave my hair like him next." Others alongside him were already wearing the hairstyles of their favourite players. One of them was sporting a Nani cut, another had gelled it David Beckham-style. There was also a flowing mane - a throw back to the 1970s perhaps.
From different countries and creeds, the 64 teenagers gathered with a common dream - to be one of the five who will get a chance to visit Old Trafford and train at the Manchester United Soccer School in the UK, and possibly meet Rooney. Their opportunity has come through an initiative by Nike, who have launched the Elite Training Programme to give the country's football-obsessed teenagers a chance to excel at the game. This was the first step towards their dream for the young enthusiasts, the selection day, and each one of them had made the grade for the second round.
It was their enthusiasm that got them the nod from Tommy Wingrove, coach of the Manchester United Soccer School in Dubai, for the intensive two-week programme that finishes today and leads to the selection of the best five for the trip to the UK. "The players who have attended have worked very, very hard. They have been exceptional," said Wingrove. "We put them through technical and physical tests to evaluate their abilities in terms of passing, shooting, control and also their speed and endurance, which are obviously vital components for the top players in today's game.
"The players have all performed very, very well. They have all given 110 per cent and we have seen some very talented players come through the testing. So it's been quite interesting to watch them, quite exciting." The players are not all in peak condition and toiling under the hot sun for more than two hours was more than a challenge for them. But dreamy-eyed, and inspired by Rooney watching over them, they went through the drills with a smile. Many were carrying a few extra kilos, but their enthusiasm made them light on their feet and they enjoyed every minute.
"It is really amazing, something that has never happened before," said Kassim Mohammed, a Lebanese student at Skyline University. "So it was a great experience. I love football and have been playing the game regularly since the age of eight. But you never get the opportunity to get into clubs here. So Nike have come around and given us this opportunity that we have been dreaming of." Lloyd Colasco, an Indian from Goa, had to make an earlier start than most to reach Dubai Sports City for the selection. A trainee at a restaurant in Abu Dhabi, the 19-year-old was up before daybreak. He stood tense and exhausted after the trials, waiting for Wingrove's decision on selection. Part of the Goa club Churchill Brothers' youth team, Colasco could finally smile after hearing that he will be continuing in the programme. "I have learned so many skills that I never knew about," he said. "Like holding and controlling the ball. I am really looking forward to staying on and hopefully be among the final five." "
Faris Hassan, another youngster at the event said: "It's the dream of every player here to go to go to Old Trafford and train at the Manchester United Soccer School. So I am ready for anything to get to Man U," he said, thumping his chest. Kassim Mohammed added: "Such events are great for scouting talents that have never got a chance here and will never get." One of the modern game's icons, Beckham was discovered through a similar initiative.
"He came through a programme that was delivered by the Bobby Charlton Soccer School, which we obviously have very, very close links with," said Wingrove. "So in terms of the talent identification process, projects like these are very, very useful and very rewarding." There is no saying what this diverse group might throw up. Training under Rooney's gaze from the giant screen and spurred on by their dream, a star could be in the making.