While it often seems that international tournaments materialize into existence just hours before the opening match kicks off, the reality is an absurd amount of (sometimes slave) labor goes into ensuring tournaments not only go off without a hitch but impress fans and players alike. From venues to accommodations, transportation, infrastructure and everything in between, a successful tournament hinges on hundreds of variables coalescing into a single, immaculate form at just the right time.
But for all the hand-wringing and investigative journalism that topics like stadium construction seem to bring about, there’s a single variable, often overlooked, that can spell doom for a tournament months before it kicks off: the official tournament mascot.
That’s right. As we’ve seen time and time again, official tournament mascots can make or break competitions. In fact, recent studies published in academic journals have shown that mega-events don’t actually harm host nations. Rather, bad mascots simply obliterate positive economic growth.
With that in mind, and with a number of international tournaments on deck, let’s look back to some of the worst tournament mascots and their legacies of failure, and what we can expect from the soccer world’s two newest offerings.
Tournament: 1987 Copa America – Argentina
As with most international tournaments, the 1987 Copa America was developed as a way for the host nation, in this case Argentina, to display its regional dominance. With Diego Maradona in the midst of his prime, the expectation had been that Argentina would run rampant, with the celebratory parade through Buenos Aries an inevitable cap to the tournament. However, while most outside observers viewed Argentina as tournament favorites, they were predestined to failure months before the tournament began by Gardelito, the competition’s official mascot.
“A handsome, manly little doll” according to Wikipedia, the mascot was developed as an homage to Carlos Gardel, one of the most prominent singers in the history of tango. Problem is, Gardel died more than 50 years before the tournament kicked off. In effect, that would be akin to the United States hosting the World Cup and picking a passed-out Buster Keaton or zombie Gary Cooper to represent the nation. At a certain level, it works, but it’s still bad form.
No matter how often they were told to ‘tango their way to goal,’ Argentina could only resist Gardelito’s negative energy for so long, losing to Uruguay in front of 85,000 fans in the tournament’s semifinal. Rough.
Tournament: 1990 World Cup – Italy
Most official documents refer to ‘Ciao’ as a ‘stick-figure footballer with an Italian tricolor body.’ While that might be the observable truth, the reality of Ciao’s story is much darker. Consider: If Ciao is a stick-figure footballer, why doesn’t he move?
The unfortunate truth is that Ciao was later discovered to be a horrific experiment in modern art. A contemporary version of the Brazen Bull, Ciao actually contained a failed player inside of its outer shell. No matter how often the man called for help, his cries were muffled under the nonstop chants of “Ole, ole!”
Only when the crowd noise died down did bystanders began to suspect the dark truth. In fact, in archival footage of Italy’s semifinal shootout against Argentina, you can hear a muffled, “Make your penalty and then get me out of here” emanating from a Ciao figure near the Italian bench. No wonder Roberto Donadoni and Aldo Serena missed their tries. Way too much pressure.
Tournament: Euro 1992 – Sweden
Mascot: Rabbit, the rabbit
At first glance, ‘Rabbit’ appears to be a fairly respectable mascot. Sure, the name isn’t optimal, but who doesn’t love an animal wearing national colors?
All the characteristics present in quality mascots are visible with Rabbit. Family friendly? Check. Football-related? Check. Cuddly? Check. The problem with Rabbit arrives when you consider the European Championship mascot from just four years earlier, Berni.
THEY’RE ALMOST EXACTLY THE SAME!
Save for slightly different colors, ‘Rabbit’ the rabbit is a carbon copy of Euro 1988’s mascot, except worse. It’s unclear how this came about, or how the plagiarism was overlooked by a global audience, but I’d like to assume that a contest was held to determine Sweden’s mascot, and that a child accidentally submitted a Euro ’88 coloring book which the council promptly accepted.
Plagiarism doesn’t get you anywhere in life, and as a result, Sweden crashed out in the semifinals.
Tournament: Euro 2000 – Netherlands/Belgium
Apparently, Benelucky is a lion-devil (which is a thing), with a colorful mane that represents the Belgian and Dutch national flags. More accurately, Benelucky is the stuff of nightmares — a shower scrubber come to life with intentions to kill.
Thankfully, Belgium and the Netherlands co-hosted the tournament, and as a result, can share the overwhelming amount of shame that comes with a mascot like Benelucky.
As penitence, Belgium crashed out in the group stage and the Dutch in the semifinals.
Tournament: Euro 2008 and Euro 2012
Mascot: Trix and Flix (above) & Slavek and Slavko
I could write a few paragraphs or we could just agree to never let Austria, Switzerland, Poland and Ukraine host anything. And I’m not just referring to international tournaments. Literally no type of gathering. Don’t go for meetings, matches or vacations. If you live in any of those four countries, don’t go anywhere. Stay at home lest you be trailed by a pair of aggressive mascots with unclear motives.
These countries obviously lost their tournaments.
Tournament: Euro 2016 – France
Mascot: yet unnamed
At best, Euro 2016’s as-yet-unnamed mascot shares a shocking resemblance to Backyard Football Tom Brady. At worst, the unnamed mascot represents France’s imperialist desire to minimize their ethnic population through a concentrated media effort that’s less ‘Battle of Algiers’ and more ‘Inspector Clouseau.’ That may seem inflammatory, but what better way to indoctrinate a nation’s young population than by a mascot that’s intended to represent the entirety of their nation?
Or maybe they just plagiarized Jimmy Neutron and added murder eyes.
Either way, France will crash out in the quarterfinals, and Samir Nasri will point and laugh.
Tournament: Copa America 2015
Mascot: yet unnamed
If you were to survey children about their favorite animals, very few would say ‘a 1-dimensional fox with jagged edges and odd proportions.’ In fact, it would be very odd if any child said that, and if a kid actually ran with that response, you might want to pay a bit more attention to her before she takes Lord of the Flies to heart and tampers with your meals.
Anywho, this isn’t a terrible mascot, but it does represent a prominent issue organizations seem to have experienced recently when branding tournaments or teams. Plenty of thought is put into what mascots represent — their deeper meanings, names and color palettes are often used as a way to develop a personality for the character. However, very little attention seems to be paid to the most important consumer in the entirety of the mascot landscape: kids.
Mascots are supposed to be fun, cuddly and mischievous. They’re supposed to be relatable (to a certain extent), cute, and make for a perfect plush friend to lug around. They don’t need to have deeper meanings or represent cultures or teach an important lesson to the world at large. They just need to be, well, mascots.
Important point: the Copa America mascot’s name will be determined by a text message vote, in which fans will have to pay 65 cents for each vote.
Chile is going to go home without scoring a single goal for that one.