Imagine a real-life Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, where coveted golden tickets will grant access to your wildest dreams. Well, for 11 kids from around the world, they got their golden tickets, a trip to Manchester, England to live out the most passionate football fan’s dream.
To convey the message of believing in the impossible and to show the human connection through football, Chevrolet brought in children from eight to 13-years-old from the United States, Mexico, Colombia, United Arab Emirates, China and South Korea, all to be mascots for Manchester United leading up to their match against Leicester City.
“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; for our children, it is a game that teaches them that anything is possible through hard work and dedication,” said Tim Mahoney, chief marketing officer, Global Chevrolet. “The 11 children chosen to be mascots this year truly embody the ‘never give up spirit’ that is at the core of everything we do at Chevrolet. We are proud to honor these remarkable children.”
Jorge (Colombia), Daniela (Colombia), Oscar (Mexico), Haoyin (China), Junkai (China), Ryan (UAE), Ali (UAE), Jeongu (South Korea), Homin (South Korea) and twin brother and sister Qassim and Ruqaya (USA), received the star treatment from Manchester United and Chevrolet. Among the highlights were meeting Manchester United Manager Jose Mourinho and players such as Wayne Rooney, Paul Pogba, Marcus Rashford, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, David de Gea and the rest of the club.
The kids got private training at the Aon Training Complex before their match against retired legends. They also received a private tour of Old Trafford, which served as a prelude to the ultimate experience that took place during the match with Leicester City.
The children walked hand in hand with the players whose shirts dawned the name of their mascot and got to shoot penalty kicks at halftime in front of 75,256 fans in attendance.
As incredible as those experiences were, what Chevrolet managed to put together next was truly inspiring to the human heart.
In a world where it’s easy to be cynical, watching the purity of kids from all over the world connect with each other at the most basic level was magic. Although they may not have understood each other’s languages, there was one language they all did speak—football.
Brought together through their love of football and Manchester United, these kids and their families were able to create a bond that will be everlasting and perhaps inspire others to dare dream the dream of what can be achieved.
For Chevrolet Mascot, Ryan, and his father Ronan Slattery, the trip served as a gateway to build on an exhilarating bond. In actuality, it was the first time he and Ryan had been away with just each other. Originally from Ireland, Ronan’s job at Microsoft now has his family living in Dubai.
“We’ve moved countries a lot with my jobs,” Ronan said. “Football has really helped him connect and make friends.”
After Ryan’s soccer camp in Dubai held open auditions to be one of Chevrolet’s Mascots, the family didn’t think there was any chance of this happening but he kept making it through to the final round. It was Ronan, a lifelong Manchester United fan, who took the phone call, discovering his son had been chosen right before he picked Ryan up from school.
“I was shocked,” Ryan said dressed in his Manchester United kit just before running off toward fellow Chevrolet Mascot, Oscar, to practice for the halftime penalty kick he’d take during Manchester United’s match.
The father and son had been getting up early, before anyone else, taking a walk near Old Trafford. On the side of the stadium, hung banners featuring the Mascots pictures, and outside in the concourse along a brick wall, was a giant photo of Ryan wearing a Manchester United shirt, holding a soccer ball.
“That was my No. 1 moment because I’ve been coming here since I was 11-years old,” Ronan said. “I stood in that concourse as a kid and as an adult for many matches and that was an amazing moment.”
However, the moment Ryan and everyone else had waited for was Saturday’s match when they would walk out on the pitch with the players and exchange shirts. Well, that moment and the chance to nail a goal against “Fred the Red” at halftime.
As the Manchester United match was about to start, and with legendary announcer Alan Keegan’s voice booming across the stands of Old Trafford, the Chevrolet Mascots walked out on the field with thunderous applause. Ryan was partnered with Manchester United forward Marcus Rashford. They exchanged shirts and the moment was starting to sink in for Ronan.
“It was the first butterflies I’ve had the whole trip. I’ve been fairly cool and calm but that was one that got me,” Ronan said. “When he came back from the pitch, I don’t think he realized the enormity of what just happened. Between leaving the pitch and coming back, no joke, I had 50-60 buzzes on my phone from my wife back in Dubai who’s crying and from my friends at the game.”
After a brilliant first half where Manchester United scored four goals, the Mascots took their place and prepared to fire kick after kick at “Fred the Red.” All of the Mascots had worked on their personal celebrations. Ryan and Oscar had been preparing at the restaurant the previous night. Oscar scored and then the duo’s celebration got the fans cheering.
With other kids deciding to go low with their kicks, Ryan, the daring person that he is, wanted to go top corner with his kick. His kick cracked the crossbar. Nonetheless, the kid wasn’t fazed being on the pitch in front of thousands of people.
“I wasn’t nervous. I was excited. I felt proud,” Ryan said. “I was just focusing on scoring but then I hit the crossbar, but I was happy when Oscar and me did our celebration and everyone was cheering.”
Ronan was still glowing, embracing the moment. “The shiny stuff has been phenomenal. There’s no getting away from an experience of a lifetime, meeting the players and having this whole experience with Chevrolet,” Ronan said. “I hope he takes this experience and grows with it.”
Other parents were taking in the moment as well. Ahmed Azam and his wife Asma Okour, Los Angeles residents, had not been able to stop smiling. This was an unfathomable moment for them with their hearts full and their eyes staying focused on a pair of little teammates that were inseparable.
It was their 8-year-old twins Qassim and Ruqaya. Wherever one would go, the other was right behind. According to Ahmed and Asma, that’s how they have always been. They’re best friends and both have a keen ability in honesty and in observation.
When asked how it felt to score a goal on “Fred the Red” in front of thousands of people, which resulted in Qassim celebrating by sliding with his arms in the air in a conquering manner and Ruqaya dusting her shoe off and dabbing, the twins were straightforward.
“It was very easy to do because he missed on purpose,” Ruqaya said. “And because he’s a man in a costume so he can’t see” her twin brother Qassim replied.
As entertaining as the twins are, there was no shortage of emotions among the family. Well, except for Qassim it seems. He’s a jaunty little fellow. But his sister had some nerves while in front of a crowd of more than 75,000.
“At first I felt nervous,” Ruqaya said. “But I started feeling better when I saw my mom and dad waving at me. “
Their father, Ahmed, who played professional soccer in Jordan, was overflowing with joy watching his children throughout the week. Even showing pride as his son, Qassim, represented the red, white and blue proudly, by besting his fellow Mascots in a Go-Kart on his way to winning the Red Devil Rally earlier in the week.
There was little doubt what touched Ahmed and Asma more than anything, was that their children were chosen as representatives of the United States and got to walk onto the pitch of the most famous stadium in Europe as ambassadors of their country.
“In the beginning, we never imagined how good it would be. In fact, I couldn’t control my emotions,” Ahmed said. “It’s a moment where I couldn’t even breathe. I didn’t know what to say. I want to tell the world that my children, walking into the field representing the United States is an amazing moment. I think it’s impossible to express it in words.”
Ahmed and Asma, who are also parents of quadruplets, saw the experience as not only a way to inspire kids to become better players but also as a platform to inspire the rest of the world.
“It’s real lovely that Chevrolet can bring kids from all around the world and show the whole world how the kids can love each other,” Ahmed said. “Hopefully, the world can become much better in the future as well. I want my children to be good players and be messengers of peace for the world. Basically, we can take the soccer, which is the language of the world but all the people can come together.”
Manchester United’s gracious actions and goodwill off the pitch is as glorious as their accomplishments throughout history. It’s perhaps even more of a reason why Chevrolet signed a seven-year deal to be the logo on Manchester United’s shirt, which gets more exposure than any club in the world. Manchester is obviously a special place.
“I joined in 1990 and ever since that moment, its always been a family for me,” legendary Manchester United player Denis Irwin said. “I still think this is one small place in Manchester, where 700 people work for the club and it still feels like a bit of a family. I think there’s beauty in that.”
Irwin, as well as other former Manchester United legends like Quinton Fortune, have helped Chevrolet in building pitches around the world in China, India, Dubai, Brazil and South Korea and understand the importance of reaching out and lending a helping hand.
Irwin experienced unprecedented success during his time with the Manchester United club and perhaps that is one of the reasons he’s so eager to give back because they gave him so much.
“I was fortunate here. I had 12 great years under a fantastic manager with some unbelievably good players,” Irwin said. “As a player, to win a Treble when no English club had done it beforehand and no English Club have done it since; win the Premier League, the FA Cup and the UEFA Champions League within 10 or 11 days as a professional footballer unless you win the World Cup, I don’t think you could ever top that.”
That love and passion that Irwin and Manchester United shares is contagious, and their reach to Mascots, like Ali in Dubai, is an endorsement of that.
Ali, a Manchester United fan who was born with Down syndrome, absolutely loves football and it has helped build his confidence exponentially.
Throughout the week, there was no one more popular with the players and legends than Ali. He was so well liked that after a match between the Mascots and the legends, Fortune let Ali clean his bald head with precision.
“He’s amazing,” Fortune said. “He gave me a 10-minute massage and it was probably the best 10-minute massage of my life. He’s amazing, though. You can just see how much he loves the game.”
Ali’s mother, Els Maria, didn’t know if they were going to make it to the game because of Embassy complications, but she wanted so desperately for her son to continue to grow and continue to do the unthinkable while bringing awareness at the same time.
“I wanted to show Ali that even though he’s a special child, we wanted to show he has abilities, to also be a role model and an inspiration and try and encourage other people especially in the Middle East,” Els Maria said. “We wanted to bring awareness and motivation.”
Els Maria was adamant that she believes in challenging Ali and wants him to have more opportunities to seize the day. She described her proudest moment was watching Ali score a goal at halftime in front of a packed stadium and everyone cheering for him.
Els Maria is firm in her belief that you can accomplish anything and she sees Ali as a product of possessing that mentality. Seeing the Chevrolet Mascots interact and their love for each other further enhanced that belief.
“We’re all from around the globe. In an apparently very complicated world, things can be very simple,” Els Maria said. “Children who don’t even understand each other are playing and they’re having fun. Football doesn’t require language. Football doesn’t have any color or race or any label. That’s the great thing that Chevrolet realized with this Mascot campaign. “
Joshua Caudill is a writer for CraveOnline, a hockey fanatic, a pro wrestling connoisseur and an expert on all things Patrick Swayze. You can follow him on Twitter @JoshuaCaudill85 or “like” CraveOnline Sports on Facebook.