Since England unleashed World Cup Willie in 1966, every host had delivered a mascot – but they aren’t all equal. Who’s the best? And who’s the worst? (Hint: it’s Striker)
14. Striker (1994)
Look at this douchebag. There was nothing to like about Striker: a bland, nondescript cartoon dog with a drearily prosaic name. He was a pup purely because dogs are a popular pet in the USA and heralded the era of the quirk-free, corporate mascot.
Ironically, in a World Cup that was lit up by amazing strikers (Romario, Baggio, Stoichkov, Klinsmann, Batistuta), Striker himself deserved to go straight to the pound.
13. Juanito (1970)
Call the stereotype hotline. Juanito is an 11-year-old Mexican boy, wearing a sombrero, in full football kit, posing with a football. As if it wasn’t blatantly obvious already that he is a World Cup mascot, Juanito also has ‘MEXICO 70’ in on his hat to idiot-proof the whole affair. Unimaginative.
12. Pique (1986)
Ay caramba! Doubling down on the stereotypes of 1970s, Pique is a jalapeno pepper sporting a sombrero and bushy moustachio. More original than Juanito, and you sort of admire the pan-faced audacity in chucking something so insulting on to the Mexican public, but it’s not right.
Responding to the controversy around Pique in 1986, one of his creators claimed that the mascot “is a bit like the sleepy Indian taking a siesta against a tree”. We doubt that helped matters.
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11. Zakumi the Leopard (2010)
Like that mangy cur Striker, Zakumi is a yawnsome cartoon animal who proved about as memorable as host nation South Africa’s performances in 2010.
Zakumi sits above three mascots because he’s not an offensive national stereotype – or, even worse, Striker – and because he has good hair, which goes a long way. What are the odds that Neymar is sporting a lustrous green quiff like this at, say, Real Madrid next season?
10. Zabivaka (2018)
On the one paw, Zabivaka is a Siberian wolf (which is cool) designed by a 21-year-old Russian student (which is also cool).
Yet he seems more like a generic Winter Olympic mascot to us – and the wraparound shades don’t help. Particularly as they look suspiciously like an eye mask. That said, we’ve all wished for a blindfold during an England World Cup performance, so maybe Zabivaka is just coming prepared.
9. Ato, Nik and Kaz (2002)
Each of this trio looks like a particularly disappointing Kinder Egg treat, yet the Korea/Japan 2002 mascots have an even stranger backstory. Ato, Nik and Kaz are actually ‘Spheriks’ who play a game called ‘Atmoball’, despite marketing the ‘football’ World Cup (sell-outs).
Ato, the yellow one, is the coach; a sort of lanky Arsene Wenger to the presumably underperforming young duo of Nik (blue) and Kaz (purple). Bizarre. Let’s park them in mid-table and never speak of Atmoball again.
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8. Fuleco the Armadillo (2014)
Controversy alert! Fuleco is from the same generic cartoon zoo as Zakumi and Zabivaka, but he has his plusses. He’s a Brazilian three-banded armadillo, which is ace, and his snazzy blue forehead armour probably makes him a real handful at set-pieces.
However, FIFA were criticised for boasting that this mascot would raise awareness about an endangered species, but actually did nothing when conservation charities in Brazil reached out for help in protecting the habitat of Fuleco’s brothers and sisters in the wild. So FIFA essentially took something inherently good and Fu**co’d it up. Sounds familiar.
7. Gauchito (1978)
A blatant Juanito rip-off, but the Argentina icon has significant advantages over his 1970 doppelganger. To start with, he’s the only World Cup mascot to hold a whip (at least until Qatar 2022 comes along).
We also quite like his neckerchief and jaunty stance; one foot on the ball as if he’s challenging you to dispossess him, only to poke a cheeky nutmeg through your gate and skedaddle past, possibly giving you a cheeky whip on the backside on his way. Oh Gauchito! You’ve done us once more.
6. Footix (1998)
It’s difficult to say why France ’98 mascot Footix is superior to Striker, despite being in the same category as that detestable hound (i.e. generic national beast with a football). Maybe a massive blue cockerel is somehow inherently epic.
The randy old rooster is even a dad – we’re not making this up – as Ettie, mascot for the 2019 Women’s World Cup, is the daughter of Footix. Of course she is. The only confusing thing about Footix is that he’s usually shown holding the ball, which is illegal, indicating he’s either a goalkeeper or doesn’t know the laws of football. Let’s assume the former.
5. Goleo IV and Pille (2006)
The best modern mascot – if only the second-best lion – Goleo IV was created by the Jim Henson Workshop and looks enjoyably, almost freakishly leonine. He was criticised in Germany for being a lion (apparently people would’ve preferred a beast native to Germany), which seems a trifle cruel, and for not wearing trousers.
Goleo’s horrendous tackle aside, we’re more concerned about his sidekick. Pille is a football with a face and our new worst nightmare. Poor Goleo fared little better with his musical collaborations, teaming up with Atomic Kitten and Fatman Scoop in 2006. No.
4. Tip and Tap (1974)
West Germany’s big man/little man combo may not be sharing one giant pair of shorts. It’s hard to tell. The rosy-cheeked duo, who’d be equally at home as hands on a child’s watch, were apparently designed to promote unity as West Germany had been drawn with East Germany in the group stages.
A bit prosaic, but we’ll boost them a few places. Firstly because their name sounds like a Spanish football tactic which maintains 110% possession of the ball, and secondly for their resemblance to Peter Crouch and Frank Lampard waving you off on holiday. Pleasing.
3. World Cup Willie (1966)
The original and one of the best. Willie started this mascot craze with his choppy mane and phallic name. Created by children’s illustrator Reg Hoye (who’d go on to design Manchester United’s Fred the Red), Willie was a massive hit with a range of merchandise, a comic strip and his own song.
The only thing we’d dispute about ‘WCW’ is his clobber. Why is the mascot for an entirely England-hosted World Cup wearing a Union Jack shirt? Although we do like his Mr Men-style shoes, which – judging by Willie’s macho posture – he’s just beaten someone up and stolen. If you see Mr Tickle, dazed and shoeless in the street, blame this lion.
2. Ciao! (1990)
Inspired. While most World Cup mascots are kids or anthropomorphic animals designed to look cute on duvet covers, Ciao! was a different creature. This faceless Italia ’90 monstrosity is like an end-level boss from an 8-bit video game – or something Marvel would introduce to smash the tar out of Bruce Banner in the forthcoming blockbuster: Avengers: Ciao! vs Hulk.
Ciao! – an absurdly happy name for such a nightmarish figure – has a stickman body made from bits of Rubik’s Cube and, you’ll have noticed, a football for a head. Considering that every other mascot since has clearly been designed by a branding committee, Ciao! stands as a brilliant one-off.
1. Naranjito (1982)
As with all genius, it’s actually hard to say precisely what makes Naranjito the best mascot. Perhaps his co-creator Jose Maria Martin Pacheco put it best when he said: "I saw oranges and wondered why not?”
Pacheco added that he “wanted to avoid the bull and the tambourine” as Spain’s mascot. Hell yes. Pack it in, Mr Tambourine Man. How can you compete with a big, beaming orange? It’s a look so cool that Alan Brazil has spent a lifetime physically trying to become Naranjito, with horrifying success.
The original ’82 Naranjito was so terrific he even got his own cartoon series, which featured his girlfriend Clementine, best pal Citronio (a bumbling lemon) and a robot called Imarchi. The series was apparently created with the input of the great Alfredo Di Stefano, who was either phoning it in at this point (“yeah, robots, lemons, whatever”) or the 1950s Real Madrid side was even more incredible than we knew.
Whatever the truth, the alchemy that created the great Naranjito is unlikely to be repeated.