The mascots in the Soccer World Cup have been curious animals, funny children, a gigantic orange and even extraterrestrial beings. For over five decades they have been a special part of the most followed sporting event on the planet and its creators have always tried, with more or less success, to combine the characteristics of each host country with innovative elements of design.
The mascots association with sports competitions isn’t too old and dates back to the sixties of the last century. The Soccer World Cup was the event that initiated the tradition, because the first of the mascots in these tournaments, the lion Willie, traditional symbol of the British royalty, appeared in England, in 1966; while at the Olympic Games it made its official debut in 1972, and it was up to the dog Waldi to accompany the athletes at the Munich event.
In 1966, Willie caused a sensation. The lion, with an English flag on its chest and a mane reminiscent of the famous Beatles, was in the main stadiums and its figure is associated with fond memories for the English people. The reason is simple: after that World Cup the best performance of the “creators of soccer” has been a fourth place.
After Willie began the period of children as mascots. For example, in 1970, in Mexico, it was Juanito and in 1974 the Germans chose the Tip and Tap brothers as representatives of the World Cup that culminated in the dream way: with a triumph in the final against Johan Cruyff’s “clockwork orange”. Tip was tall and blond, with the number 74 on his shirt; Tap, quite the opposite: small and brunette.
Another child encouraged the return of the Cup to South America, in this case to Argentina ruled by a military dictatorship. In 1978, the organizers decided to call their mascot “Gauchito” who showed a comic hat and in his hand a whip, the most classic style of the gauchos of the Argentine Pampas. The national team won for the first time the World Cup, with two goals from Mario Alberto “El Matador” [“The Killer”] Kempes, in the final, against Holland, so “Gauchito” is associated with one of the highlights of Argentine soccer.
For the 1982 version the Spaniards wanted to innovate and it’s said they did it. They presented “Naranjito” [“Orangie”] which, as the name suggests, was a huge orange, typical fruit in Valencia and Murcia, dressed as a soccer player, with a mischievous expression on its face. “Naranjito” has been the only fruit in the history of mascots in World Cups and Olympic Games.
In the Cup’s second visit to Mexican territory, in 1986, the designers created “Pique”, a jalapeño pepper that had on its head the typical hat, one of the most representative symbols of that country. In Italy 1990, again the Europeans tried to break models, because they presented the first inanimate mascot; but certainly “Ciao”, that mechanical mockup, with the colors of the Italian flag and a ball in the head, has been one of the least striking in one of the most mediocre World Cups of all time.
Four years later, in the United States 1994, the animals reappeared and the Striker dog, created by the Warner Brothers studios, with its soccer player clothes, aroused amusement among the fans and was a fond memory of an event that served to promote the practice of soccer in that country.
The appointment in France, in 1998, presented a new animal and couldn’t be other than the traditional symbol of that nation, a blue rooster named “Footix”, which always carried a ball in its hands. “Footix” brought luck to the Gauls, because the team, led by Zinedine Zidane, won for the first ―and only time for now― the World Cup.
The World Cup’s to the Asian continent, in 2002, had several novelties, among them the presence of three extraterrestrial mascots that, according to the legend elaborated by the organizers, “came from the imaginary planet Atmozone” and were inspired by the comics. In terms of sports, that World Cup was historic for Asia, since one of the hosts, South Korea, managed to be included in the semifinal.
Perhaps the “non-earthly” experience of Ato, Kaz and Nik hasn’t been the most convincing from the economic point of view, that’s why in Germany 2006, the designers returned to the real world and the numbers showed that the second mascot in the shape of a lion in the World Cups, called Goleo VI, accompanied by Pille the soccer ball, was a success.
The 2010 South African Cup had as official mascot another representative of the animal kingdom: the leopard Zakumi, which also showed several elements alluding to the host country. For example, the first syllable of the compound name, “za”, made reference to South Africa, while “kumi” was a translation of the number ten in multiple languages of that continent. The color of the hair in the leopard was green for, supposedly, “camouflage in the soccer fields”.
In the 2014 edition, hosted by Brazil, the mascot was Fuleco, a three-armed armadillo that was in danger of extinction. This striking animal, dressed in the colors of the Brazilian flag and holding a ball, may not be very well remembered by fans of the “Canarinha”, as the local team was humiliated by Germany, 7-1, in one of the semifinals.
For the 2018 World Cup, the Russian organizers launched an online contest with the aim of selecting the mascot. The winning project was Zabivaka, a wolf whose name means “little scorer” and who wears a uniform with the colors of the Russian flag, as well as sports glasses. Will it bring luck to the local team?