With the World Cup now fully underway you may well have seen the smiling face of this friendly looking blue headed armadillo. The cheerful chap in question is Fuleco and he is the latest in a long line of cuddly national self stereotyping that is the World Cup mascot. Described as: “self-confident and a proud Brazilian, warm-hearted and hospitable” (unlike the rest of his species, that are rather timid and solitary), Fuleco is a three banded armadillo (Tolypeutes tricinctus), a rare and endangered species that has the unusual defensive ability to roll up into an almost perfect ball shape, its shell and tail interlocking tightly around its body. From a marketing perspective an endangered animal that can essentially turn into something that looks like a football is a stroke of genius (“my trademark is confusing my friends on the football pitch by suddenly snapping into a ball during the match,” Fuleco says on his section of the World Cup website) and he is certainly a much more creative national animal mascot than Zakumi the South Africa ’10 leopard, Goleo the Germany ’06 lion, or Striker the USA ’94 dog.
The use of a national animal as mascot to a World Cup contest goes back to the original World Cup mascot, 1966’s World Cup Willie. The lion in his Union Jack shirt (even though the tournament was hosted solely in England and the home nations competed separately, the Union Jack was still much more commonly seen amongst both fans and merchandising than the St. George cross) was designed by Enid Blyton illustrator Reg Hoye and was a big enough hit to have his own theme song. “Dressed in red, white and blue, he’s World Cup Willie. We all love him too, World Cup Willie,” sang Lonnie Donegan, “He’s tough as a lion and never will give up. That’s why Willie is favourite for the cup” (proving somewhat more prescient than when the Scottish national team song in 1978 promised “We’ll really shake them up when we win the World Cup”). Willie was such a success that he was the form that other mascots followed. A cute animal or a boy in the national kit became the necessary design in virtually every tournament.
The 1980s, however, bucked the trend in the most delicious way by replacing the kids in football shirts with food. Yes, for some never clearly defined reason, for back to back World Cups in 1982 and 1986 the mascot, the icon of their home nation, was vegetable not animal. Arguably Gauchito, the mini-cowboy from Argentina ’78, started the progress towards an association of World Cup mascots and food, given that he presumably used his cute little whip to round up beef cattle when not watching his country, run by a repressive military junta, getting conveniently the exact result they needed against Peru.
In Spain in 1982, a country just getting over its own years of labouring under Fascist oppression, there was a mood of summery optimism and the rotund icon the Spanish World Cup organisers chose to embody this feeling was an orange. Even by the standards of the young Diego Maradona, playing in his first World Cup, Naranjito here is a little broad around the waistline to be a World Cup star (he doesn’t even have a neck), but, hey, at least he could provide the players with the traditional half time sustenance in an era before branded energy drinks.
In Mexico four years later things heated up, and not just the baking summer temperatures, thanks to a pepper in a hat. As anyone will know who watched the Mexicans victory over Cameroon last week or, more specifically, watched their fans as the camera lovingly picking them out, Mexican football fans embrace national stereotypes of themselves better than virtually any other country. That crowd against Cameroon was packed with sombreros and lucha libre masks, so Juanito, the boy in a Mexico shirt that was used as the 1970 World Cup mascot, came as something of a disappointment. Not so the Mexicans’ second attempt at this thing. Pique (no relation to the Barcelona and Spain defender of the same name), a beaming jalapeño headed chap with a bushy moustache wider than his smile and a sombrero with a brim wider than he is tall, is the most brilliant vegetable mascot creation of all and proved hard to beat in future years.
Italy’s weird ball headed stick figure Ciao had a certain charm, but it is disappointing perhaps that his tricolor limbs weren’t made of spaghetti or his football head a meatball, not nearly as disappointing as USA ’94. You might think that America, a country that, after all, habitually advertises food with an anthropomorphic mascot made of that same food (essentially the mascot encouraging you to eat it), would be on board with the edible mascot. But all we got was the supremely bland Striker, the so-called World Cup Pup, and it’s been almost all animals since then.
France ’98’s cockerel mascot Footix was one of the better recent designs (albeit disappointingly not following the World Cup Willie naming tradition and going by “Coupe du Monde Coq”) and would, I suppose, have been edible, but one suspects that was not so much the point with him as it was with Pique. Indeed Fuleco himself is edible and that’s part of the reason for his endangered status. With his name (it’s a compound of “futbol” and “ecologia”) and type of animal, Fuleco is, however, intended to create the opposite impression.
Referring to the three banded armadillo’s rolling into a ball trick The Guardian recently remarked: “Ironically, the same property that makes it so suitable as the figurehead for the World Cup also makes it easy to bag up and barbeque.” The article goes on to suggest, quite reasonably, that if FIFA and the CBF were serious about using Fuleco to help his endangered species then they would give some financial support (say, from the enormous number of Fuleco toy sale profits) rather than the age old excuse of “raising awareness”. Perhaps they should have just gone for a cute anthropomorphised cassava all along.