World Cup 2018: Russia Shortlists Tiger, Wolf and Cat as Possible Mascots

Putin smiles while holding a cat
Purring with Putin: the Russian president holds a cat (not Barsik) while visiting the Siberian Khakasiya region, Russia, September 4, 2015. Alexei Druzhinin/RIA Novosti/Kremlin/Reuters

Russia's Ministry of Sport has announced the shortlist of mascot concepts for the 2018 FIFA World Cup, due to be hosted in Russia, the country's state news agency Itar-Tass has reported.

The ministry and the football tournament's organization committee have been accepting submissions from art students and graphic designers since September 2015. Over 50,000 concepts were submitted and, following an arduous selection process, the committee has selected three concepts from which it will now choose a mascot.

According to the committee's director, Alexey Sorokin, the three creatures in competition with one another to represent the 2018 tournament are a tiger, a wolf and a cat.

Ever since England hosted the 1966 World Cup and introduced football fans to World Cup Willie the lion, every subsequent competition has had a mascot, ranging from the human Juanito, a boy with a Mexico jersey and a sombrero (1970), to the exotic Fuleco, Brazil's armadillo (2014), to the downright bizarre, such as Ciao the Italian stickman (1990) or Japan and Korea's Ato, Kaz and Nik—a group of computer-generated, futuristic characters called Spheriks (2002).

No World Cup has had a tiger, wolf or cat as a mascot, although some of the animals' not too distant cousins have graced the tournament's logos. Striker the World Cup Pup was the U.S. choice of mascot in 1994, and the only canine to represent the world's premier football competition. Besides Willie, two other big cats have been mascots—Goleo the lion and his smiling football Pille paraded up and down stadiums in Germany in 2006, and Zakumi the leopard took the baton from him for the next instalment of the tournament in South Africa in 2010.

Sorokin said that the three artists whose concepts have been approved will now work with professional animators and the finished creatures will be unveiled later this year. Then a Russia-wide vote will determine which is the best. The names of the characters will also be decided at that point.

Sorokin said that multiple mascots may also be considered. "There have been tournaments where there have been two, three or even five mascots," he said. "There is nothing scary about this. The main thing is that they are optimistic and that they do not contradict one another. They will be drawn in accordance with FIFA's regulations."

According to Sorokin, the job of the mascot is to first be agile and mobile, so as to cut an animated figure at stadiums and to reflect "the image of its country."

All three of the animals suggested are prevalent in Russia's extensive plethora of ecosystems, with the Siberian Amur Tiger being a particular favourite of Russian President Vladimir Putin. The president has championed a tiger conservation push for the better part of the last decade and some of the tigers he has rehabilitated and released into the Russian wilderness frequently make headlines with their exploits.

The president is also partial to wolves, of sorts, having ridden with his loyal supporters, known as the Night Wolves biker gang. It was not until September 2015 when Putin was first seen with a cat, while on a visit to a region in Siberia that had been hit by severe forest fires during the summer. The move may have been deliberate, as video of Putin's feline encounter showed the bemused animal squirming away, before being handed to a local.

The Kremlin was not immediately available to comment on which animal Putin would prefer to see become the World Cup 2018 mascot.