Wayne Rooney holds down the bamboo mat with one sinewy hand while the other is busy mixing rice into slices of salmon and avocado.
Carefully, the former Premier League footballer, wearing a bright orange apron, moisturizes the blend with vinegar and water, before wrapping it in one of the toasted seaweed sheets known as nori.
After wetting his knife, Rooney slowly cuts the pillar of sushi into bite-sized chunks, standing back to inspect his handiwork.
“I doubt anyone’s going to want to eat this,” he smiles bashfully, turning crimson as he realizes he’s not quite as good with his hands as with his feet.
Rolling sushi with CNN in a Dubai restaurant, 230 meters above the iconic man-made island called Palm Jumeirah, is a far cry from the district of Croxteth in Liverpool, where Rooney was born.
Rooney is warmly welcomed by resident sushi chef, Moon Kyung Soo, who cannot contain his excitement at meeting a former teammate of one his country’s idols, South Korean Park Ji-Sung. The pair hit it off, and chef Moon proudly names the finished concoction “The Rooney Roll.”
The Japanese dish is not a common menu item at the Rooney household, admits the former Manchester United player, who says his pallet is more accustomed to spaghetti bolognese or stir-fry.
The 37-year-old’s diet is emblematic of his character – despite playing top-level football for nearly 20 years, he’s not flashy or conceited, and is almost embarrassed to be on camera.
Wearing a black baseball cap, unironed chinos and an unassuming polo shirt, it’s telling that rather than his mercurial dribbling ability, boxer-like power or lightning-quick pace, Rooney believes his work ethic was instead his biggest strength on the pitch.
“That’s an ability … the biggest skill you can have. Every day, that’s probably what I’m most proud of,” Rooney tells CNN’s Becky Anderson, while overlooking a highlight of the city’s skyline, the world’s highest observation wheel, Ain Dubai.
A career of records, firsts and superlatives
England’s record-goal scorer is in town ahead of the Globe Soccer Awards, an international ceremony which celebrates the best the sport has to offer.
The nominees for best men’s player include recent Ballon D’Or winner Karim Benzema and the Frenchman’s Real Madrid teammate, Thibaut Courtois. In the women’s category, FC Barcelona star Alexia Putellas and England defender Lucy Bronze are up for contention.
CNN has partnered with the awards, now in its 13th edition, to launch the CNN Off the Pitch category at this year’s ceremony on November 17. The award will recognize the achievements of an individual, club or other soccer organization for their impact on wider society and culture as well as charitable work.
Rooney himself is nominated for an award celebrating his playing career – and his two-decade long rollercoaster ride at the top of the sport was undoubtedly something special.
“The outstanding moment … is with my team when you win a trophy and you lift that and the celebrations you have initially after that game. That’s what you work so hard for … That’s why you play,” Rooney reminisces.
“Actually, the best one was the first Premier League trophy we won,” he reveals, referring to Manchester United’s title success in the 2006/2007 season.
“I was actually sat at home… and if Chelsea didn’t win, we won the league. I had my clothes ironed ready to go out, but I didn’t want to jinx anything. Anyway, Chelsea didn’t win so I just remember the phone going off and we had a great night.”
The mercurial talent made his Premier League debut for his home club Everton in 2002 at the age of 16. His debut goal – a stunning strike that rocketed past then Arsenal goalkeeper David Seaman – has gone down in Premier League folklore
Earmarked as the outstanding talent of his generation, Rooney went on to become the first man to score 50 goals for the England national team, also overtaking Bobby Charlton’s long-held record as Manchester United’s top-scorer. Along the way, he won five league titles and played in three Champions League finals.
You might think that after such a grueling career, that a much-needed break was on the cards for Rooney. But at the age of 37, he has instead turned his attention to coaching.
He relocated to Washington in July, to manage D.C. United, a team he spent some time playing with. It won’t be an easy task considering the franchise finished bottom of the MLS Eastern Conference, but that doesn’t seem to bother Rooney.
“I love it. Trying to develop players, young players, but also having that relationship with the more senior players, and trying to develop them.”
“The appealing thing, obviously going back to D.C. and going in as head coach for me was if you look at all the big teams and the culture, it’s so diverse with different nationalities, different religions.”
While Rooney is happy stateside for now, it’s clear his long-term ambitions lie closer to home.
“Obviously Everton and Manchester United are the two clubs who are really close to my heart so to manage one of them two would be a dream,” he admits, the latter currently coached by his former England teammate, Frank Lampard.
“I’m still gaining a lot of experience from what I’m doing. You want to learn, and I want to go into Everton or Manchester United, I want to go in there and be able to give the best version of me.
“I’d be naive to say, ‘I’m going to go and manage Manchester United in the next year or so.’ For me it’s about putting the work in and developing myself and if I do that and I do it in the right way, then I feel these jobs, these opportunities will come to me eventually.”
Rooney’s tenure at DC United comes after a tumultuous reign at English side Derby County.
The club went into administration after debts spiraled and it failed to play players their wages. Deducted points for financial mismanagement, Derby was eventually relegated, but Rooney was praised for his efforts to keep them in the Championship, English football’s second tier.
“I’m proud of what we achieved there … we were relegated but without the deductions we would’ve stayed in the division.
“There was so many difficulties in what we were facing and obstacles for us to try and get over,” Rooney laments.
“I give them [sic] players so much praise because I think it was 21 debuts from the academy … There are players who maybe didn’t even have a career in football who now have [one].”
Learning from the best
If he’s looking for advice, Rooney has no shortage of mentors to draw from.
David Moyes, now West Ham manager, handed him his debut as a 16-year-old in 2002, La Liga winner Fabio Capello coached him for a spell at England, and Rooney finished his United career under two-time Champions League champion José Mourinho.
But he says his biggest influence was the Manchester club’s most successful coach, Alex Ferguson, who signed him for the club for a then-record sum for a teenager of nearly $50 million.
“He was great to play for, he’s the reason I signed for Manchester United to play for him. The best advice I got … was from Alex Ferguson, [and it] was [that] the hardest thing to do in life is to work hard every day. And that’s the best. That’s always stuck with me.
“From a football point of view, coaching point of view, of course you’re going to make mistakes, you’re going to get things wrong, but there’s no excuse really to not work.”
Manchester United has seen scant success since Ferguson retired in 2013. The 20-time English league winner has seen derby rivals Manchester City outpace them on and off the field since the takeover of the club by the Abu Dhabi United Group in 2008.
Erik ten Hag took over the coaching reins in the summer and the Dutchman has notched a few impressive wins which have lifted the mood around Old Trafford. While Rooney was in Dubai, goals from Fred and Bruno Fernandes gave the Manchester club a dominant victory over Tottenham Hotspur.
“It’s the best I’ve seen Manchester United for a long time,” says Rooney. “I think you can see what he’s trying to do. High energy, high press with the team and it was very difficult for Tottenham to play against.”
The only black mark on that performance was star player Cristiano Ronaldo walking down the tunnel with several minutes left to play because he didn’t get on the pitch. Ten Haag later suspended the player, but Ronaldo’s clear desire to play, is a positive sign for a coach, according to Rooney.
“Football’s emotional and you want players who want to be on the pitch. I don’t mind a player coming off and not being happy. I’ve done it myself,” says Rooney, who played with Ronaldo during his most successful period at United.
If Rooney has any regrets from his playing career, it’s his performance for England at international tournaments.
At the age of 18, Rooney became the youngest scorer in European Championship history – a record that only stood for four days after the Englishman’s landmark was taken by Switzerland’s Johan Vonlanthen at Euro 2004.
When he set the record, Rooney grabbed two goals in England’s second group game, a 3-0 defeat of Switzerland. He then broke a bone in his foot in the quarterfinal defeat by Portugal when England lost on penalties.
Two years later Rooney was infamously sent off at against Portugal at the 2006 World Cup for lashing out at then club teammate Ronaldo.
Despite playing as part of a team containing English icons such as Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard, known as the “Golden Generation,” Rooney never won a trophy with the national side.
“We were unlucky a few times,” Rooney laments. “Obviously in the Euros, 2004, 2006 World Cup, getting knocked out on penalties, both at the quarterfinal stage. And, again, that’s that little bit of luck you need, if you go through there, you potentially go on to win the competition.”