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TWENTY of the best under-15 football teams from around the world are making their final preparations to face the ultimate test of their skills at the Manchester United Premier Cup global finals that kick off today.
The tournament, sponsored by Nike, will be hosted by Manchester United at their Carrington training facility.
The final will be played at Old Trafford's "Theatre of Dreams" on Saturday, after the unveiling of United's new first-team line-up in their first open training session of the season.
The opening ceremony and the draw were due to be held at Carrington last night, with surprise guests of honour officiating.
At the time of writing the draw had not been conducted and South Africa's representatives at the event, Orlando Pirates, were still in the dark as to who their opening opponents and the rest of the group would be.
Over the past 16 years the tournament has offered more than a million young footballers a unique experience - the opportunity to live the dream of world-class competition. Andres Iniesta, Lionel Messi, Cesc Fabregas, Robinho, Carlos Tevez and Fernando Torres are just a few of the tournament's famous "graduates".
Seen as a proving ground for youngsters from many of the world's top clubs, the competition for places becomes more intense every year. Atletico Madrid's young line-up will be joined in Manchester by Italian giants AS Roma, both qualifying for the world finals for the fourth time this year.
Six-time finalists Paris Saint Germain have had their holidays cut short in preparation for the tournament by Coach Cedric Cattenoy in an effort to keep 2002 World Champions Sao Paulo, among others, at bay.
"South American teams are difficult to beat, not only because they're technically very skilled but because they are also very well prepared at this time of year," Cattenoy said.
Coaches need to adjust and adapt as quickly as their young charges in the heat of competition. Unfortunately, some factors are beyond their control. Thailand's Assumption College Thonburi don't want to be drawn in a group with too many European teams because the height of European players gives them an added advantage in the air. Gamba Osaka's Koji Kamogawa is concerned his young team from Japan will be "overwhelmed by the atmosphere".
"I have explained over and over again to the players that the first game is very important and that it is a must-win if we are to make an impression in this event. This is the third time that Pirates have made it this far and we hope to go one better than the last time," Pirates head of development Augusto Palacios said.
The Buccaneers finished ninth on their first visit in 2006, and eighth the next year. Palacios has also impressed on the players that this is the perfect stage to sell themselves to overseas clubs.
lSello Rabothata is in Manchester to cover the tournament as a guest of Nike SA