World Cup Willie Striker and Ciao Best World Cup mascots

Martin Ainstein undergoes an unforgettable experience in Moscow as he visits the Russian Cosmonaut Training Center during his tour of World Cup host cities.

This article has been edited and originally appeared on ESPN FC on June 7, 2014.

From the cuddly to the surreal to the conceptual art projects, the World Cup mascots down the years have been a rather mixed bunch.

Here are 10 of the best …

10. Footix, France 1998

If you want to read into this type of thing, the mascot for the 1998 World Cup seemed to symbolise the sort of positive thinking that France needed, and eventually rode, to win the tournament. After all, they hadn’t been involved since 1986, failing to qualify in 1990 and 1994, so with a brilliant team featuring Laurent Blanc, Marcel Desailly, Zinedine Zidane and a young Thierry Henry, the mood was upbeat, as was Footix, the beaming red-and-blue rooster with his chest puffed out. The term “Footix” has apparently taken on a new meaning in France since 1998 and is now a symbol of the fleeting national interest in football that came and went rather rapidly after the final, to the point at which a “footix” is basically the equivalent of a glory hunter — someone who supports a side in the good times but abandons them in the bad. Let that be your cultural lesson for the day.

9. Gauchito, Argentina 1978

The only World Cup mascot who holds a whip. Indeed, probably the only mascot of any sort who does — suitable for a family audience anyway. Gauchito was a young boy supposed to symbolise all young Argentine boys (indeed, the word basically means “little boy from the country”) and wore a national-team kit (controversially with a Puma symbol on it, when the “real” kit was made by adidas), a white-and-blue neckerchief and a rather jaunty hat with “Argentina 78” written on it. And the whip is a riding crop, horse sports of all stripes being rather popular in that part of the world, but … well, it still looks a bit iffy. Incidentally, whoever came up with the 1978 mascot was seemingly at the very least “inspired” by Mexico 1970’s effort …

8. Juanito, Mexico 1970

While the first World Cup mascot in 1966 was a lion, the Mexicans chose to go down the human route, choosing “Juanito.” His name is “Little Juan,” and he’s wearing a sombrero, with his pudgy little belly just escaping from underneath a slightly-too-small T-shirt. Juanito, with his friendly face and cheeky smile, was designed to become a “symbol of innocence and fair play,” and the green and red in which he was clad was meant to appeal to an audience watching the World Cup in colour for the first time.

7. Pique, Mexico 1986

Pique, the mascot for Mexico’s second tournament in 16 years, was a jalapeno pepper. With a pencil moustache, he also wears a sombrero. And, in case you were wondering, the name “Pique” isn’t a foreshadowing of the current Barcelona and Spain defender but instead derives from “picante,” which means spicy peppers.

6. Tip and Tap, West Germany 1974

Innovation from the Germans, who chose to go with a duo as their mascot for the 1974 tournament. Whether they were intended to resemble a youthful Laurel and Hardy isn’t clear, but Tip and Tap certainly do look like they should be getting into a fine mess of some description. These two were the first mascots designed to promote some sort of social message, intended to bring East and West Germany — who were drawn to play each other in the group stage of that tournament — closer to together. The pair had “Weltmeisterschaft 74″ on their shirts, which, in the finest literal sense of the German language simply means “World Championship 74.”

5. Striker, USA 1994

In truth, Striker: the World Cup Pup wasn’t a particularly good mascot, but he is perhaps the most fitting to the country it represented. Striker is pure America — dressed in red, white and blue, given the name of football’s glory position and even designed by Warner Bros. Animation, treading the path paved by Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Elmer Fudd and Wile E. Coyote. Striker was supposed to be the character that led the marketing of “soccer” to a relatively new audience, but kids didn’t seem to take to him particularly well. In the early drafts, Striker was seen carrying the ball under his arm, until someone pointed out that was against the rules of football, and the final version of it had his foot firmly planted on top of it.

4. Fuleco, Brazil 2014

Most mascots of recent years have shifted into the sort of bland animated characters that can be very easily packaged and put on the side of a lunchbox, but the Brazilians dipped into the fine surrealist history of the genre for their 2014 effort. Fuleco — the name a portmanteau of futebol and ecologia — was an armadillo with a yellow body and a blue head, something that sounds like it was dreamed up at 3 a.m. at the end of a long day in the marketing office. Actually, it does hold a proper message, intended to promote an environmental drive in Brazil, the animal in question being the three-banded armadillo, an endangered species in the country. So a bit odd and with an actual cause to promote — what’s not to love?

3. World Cup Willie, England 1966

The World Cup’s first-ever mascot, Willie was a lion dressed, rather confusingly for a World Cup held in England but featuring none of the other “home” nations, in a Union Flag-themed kit. Willie, drawn by Reg Hoye, an illustrator more famous for his work on Enid Blyton’s books, was partly based on Hoye’s son Leo and was one of five drafts after Hoye was asked to design a mascot, the others being three different lions and a small boy. “There was nothing threatening about him, which is one reason he was so popular internationally,” Leo Hoye said a couple of years ago. “He is not just remembered in Britain but by people of my generation from other countries. I’ve looked through the FA’s archives and there was tremendous interest from all over the world.” Hoye would go on to design a mascot for London Zoo and the Manchester United red devil, but if you hate the rampant and merciless commercialism that has come with the World Cup these days, you might want to direct your ire at Willie, for that’s when it all started. Willie was plastered over merchandise of all sorts, from tea towels to mugs to bed spreads, paving the way for the miscellaneous tat that comes with World Cups these days. Oh, and he had a song, performed by Lonnie Donegan. Obviously.

2. Naranjito, Spain 1982

There have been many strange wheezes in the history of the World Cup, from thinking that Diana Ross would be a dab hand at penalties, to the golden and silver goal. However, choosing an anthropomorphised orange as the mascot for the 1982 finals is up there. But the thing is, it really works. Naranjito was supposed to be a cheery character to symbolise a newly optimistic and positive time after Spain’s emergence from General Franco’s dictatorship, and the little fella sure puts that message across — a big smile on his face and neatly laced boots on his feet signifying he is very much up for some fun and some football. Naranjito also starred in his own animation, which resembles a Studio Ghibli production and appears to feature him narrowly escaping the clutches of an Easter Island statue. Odd business.

1. Ciao, Italy 1990

While most other World Cups opted for a nice, cuddly mascot that could be easily sold as a soft toy of some description, Italy chose a stick figure that looked like a disassembled Rubik’s Cube. A maverick decision but a strong one, for the simplicity of Ciao made it an iconic figure, from the Italian tricolour to the slightly surreal faceless football for a head. It was also absolutely of its time in terms of design and could have quite easily been a television ident used between programmes in the late 1980s. Ciao also featured in a bizarre promo for the tournament, in which children do rudimentary football drills and a goalkeeper tries to better Bruce Grobelaar’s wobbly legs with an interpretive dance routine before a bunch of people on stilts — also dressed as Ciao — show up. It’s every bit as strange as it sounds.

Nick Miller is a writer for ESPN FC, covering Premier League and European football. Follow him on Twitter @NickMiller79.