It is the dream of every young soccer fan: to lead your heroes out onto the pitch while holding the captain's hand, join in the players' pre-match kickabout and experience the applause of a massive crowd.
Sadly, though, most children wanting to enjoy the thrill of being a matchday mascot at an English Premier League club this season will have to pay for the privilege. An Observer survey of the mascot policy at England's top 20 clubs has revealed the majority charge for the honor, with the dearest, Everton, demanding ?3,525 (US$6632) for games against arch-rivals Liverpool and Manchester United.
While seven of the country's biggest teams still offer the service free, including Liverpool, Manchester United and Arsenal, 12 others make the families of young would-be mascots pay heavily, while Newcastle United only allow sponsors to choose mascots.
Of those that charge, Charlton Athletic is the cheapest, from ?60 for junior club members to ?250 for others, while the ?176.25 at Chelsea is relatively good value, given the prices charged elsewhere and their status as the reigning Premiership champions. Tottenham Hotspur maximize their revenue by having 11 mascots for each home game, one to escort every player, who pay from ?195 to ?295, depending on the quality of the opposition.
Traditionally clubs chose youngsters at random to act as the mascot for a match without payment as a goodwill gesture. But in recent years, as football's popularity has boomed, charging has become more widespread.
Disclosure of the amounts being charged sparked claims that clubs are exploiting their fans. The UK's National Consumer Council was astonished to learn that charging was so common, and the fees so high.
"It's incredible that it costs as much as ?3,525 to be a mascot. It's an eye-opener to realize that these policies are operating. It's almost like profiteering, isn't it? Football is meant to be the people's game," council spokeswoman Janice Allen said.
"The idea of charging huge amounts of money means that some sections of the local community are excluded because they will never be able to buy their way onto the pitch, so it discriminates against people on lower incomes," she said.
Malcolm Clarke, the chairman of the Football Supporters' Federation, said some of the prices were "totally gobsmacking."
"We regret the recent tendency for clubs to start charging for something they should offer for free as a contribution towards their local community," he said.
Clubs justify the prices by pointing out that a "mascot package" typically includes several match tickets, a pre-game meal, and a replica strip, signed ball and photograph, as well as the traditional visit to the changing-room to meet the players and a stadium tour.
A few, such as Portsmouth, Manchester City and Sheffield United, have some free mascots and others whose families have to pay. Middlesbrough, in contrast, reserve the honor for terminally ill children and members of their junior supporters club.
The Football Association (FA), soccer's governing body in England, refused to comment on the amounts clubs charged. But a spokesman pointed out that, for England matches, the FA allows children to act as mascots purely as a thank-you to fans. Parents cannot pay. The chance of leading the team out is shared among the children who belong to the FA's official supporters club.