The international arrivals terminal at Dulles Airport turned into a hall of soccer fans Thursday afternoon. Many wore D.C. United gear. Others represented Manchester United. All were awaiting one moment: the arrival of Wayne Rooney.
Once the decorated English soccer star, now the highest-profile player in D.C. United history, stepped into the terminal, he appeared to generate a magnetic force between himself and the fans there to greet him. A herd of supporters — perhaps 100 or 150 — swarmed the 32-year-old on the other side of the barrier, shuffling together down the hall as Rooney signed autographs and posed for photos.
The fans briefly chanted Rooney’s name and stretched phones above their heads like periscopes. Some held Sharpies and shouted “Rooney!” in a manner both polite and desperate. Others thanked him for signing with D.C. United, where he’ll become a marquee face for a franchise desperate for star power.
Well before Rooney appeared, Daniel Zaatar positioned himself at the front of the crowd. Zaatar slid his Manchester United jersey on over his shirt backward, so Rooney’s name and number would face the striker when he arrived. Zaatar hoped Rooney would see it as he came through the doorway. But a few of the many police officers staffing the arrival obstructed his view.
“I want him to see my jersey,” Zaatar said to an officer, who did not move.
Zaatar, a 27-year-old, worked from home Thursday so he could be part of these few minutes. He calls himself a die-hard Manchester United supporter, and while he’s watched the club play at FedEx Field, he had never been this close to one of the best players in its history.
“Wayne Rooney was one of the people that made me fall in love with Man United and soccer,” Zaatar said. “This is probably the smartest thing [D.C. United] could have done. We have another superstar like [Alex Ovechkin], Bryce Harper, John Wall. And [Rooney is] a global superstar.”
Rooney signed a two-and-half year guaranteed contract worth about $13 million, becoming the highest-paid player in D.C. United history. The club will hold an option for an additional year. Rooney has spent most of his career with Manchester United in the English Premier League, where he became the club’s all-time leading goal scorer. Rooney, also the English national team’s all-time leading scorer, played at the World Cup in 2006, 2010 and 2014.
He will not be available to play for D.C. United until after the transfer window opens July 10, meaning his first game will be the Audi Field opener against Vancouver on July 14.
Chris Hudler — the soccer program manager at D.C. United’s official charitable partner, DC SCORES — brought three young soccer players with him to the terminal. The kids had more posters than they could reasonably hold, and 8-year-old Declan Delaney made one on the floor as they waited for Rooney. He was drawing a D.C. United logo on one side of the poster and Manchester United’s on the other.
“For a huge hero of mine to come from my first team to another team that I love is just amazing,” said Aidan, Declan’s older brother, who left the airport with a Rooney autograph on his Manchester United jersey.
“This is iconic,” said Zaatar, who also had his jersey signed by Rooney, inside the white No. 10. “I’m shaking right now.”
As Rooney neared the end of the long line of fans, he was hurried toward the exit and the fans dispersed. His next stop was Wunder Garten in Northeast Washington, an outdoor bar with picnic benches, cold beer and televisions showing the England-Belgium match unfolding at the World Cup in Russia.
A few hundred people packed beneath Wunder Garten’s main tent, some tugging at the collars of their button-down shirts in the sticky afternoon heat. They did not know Rooney was on his way. The soccer game was enough. Then he snuck into the back entrance at 3:40 and a small group of England fans started another chant of his name.
Eyes peeled off the five televisions and onto Rooney’s path through the beer garden. He stopped for every selfie request, smiled at each fan he passed and gave a subtle thumbs up when a woman yelled “Welcome to America!” with an iPhone pointed at his face.
Mike McCusker, a 32-year-old from Liverpool, tracked Rooney through the crowd. He’s had a running joke with his friends that if Rooney ever signed with D.C. United, they would live on the same street. So once Rooney exited Wunder Garten, stepping through a chain-link gate that shut behind him, McCusker pushed his way to the fence and yelled, “Can we have a chat?”
Rooney, having just finished a short TV interview, walked over. McCusker asked if Rooney had considered what neighborhood he will move into. Rooney, a smart man, said he’d wait for his wife to arrive before deciding.
“Well, move to Adams Morgan and we can be neighbors,” McCusker suggested.
“Okay, I’ll think about it,” Rooney said through laughter, and then his seven-minute visit finished with him hopping in a car, leaving more fans buzzing behind him and waiting for his next appearance.
“I actually didn’t know he actually signed with D.C. United until now,” McCusker said once Rooney was gone. “I think it’s great for the game.”
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