Taking a trip through the football world is not unlike visiting the zoo or going on safari. After all, there are not many sports where you can see Indomitable Lions jousting with Desert Foxes, Elephants doing battle with Eagles or a Rabbit (Javier Saviola, El Conejo) putting a goal past a Duck (Roberto Abbondanzieri, El Pato).
Aside from amusing and enlightening nicknames, however, the most popular game on the planet has lots of other links with the animal world. As FIFA.com reveals in an enlightening look at football’s colourful menagerie, our four- and two-legged friends have penned many a page in the history of the game.
Fittingly, the starting point for our animal odyssey is England, the birthplace of football and the host country of the 1966 FIFA World Cup™. To mark that very special occasion in the nation’s sporting history, the Jules Rimet Trophy was put on display at Westminster Central Hall, from where it was stolen just a few weeks before the competition began.
Within a week of its disappearance, the coveted piece of silverware was discovered behind a bush in a London garden by a dog called Pickles. Not surprisingly, the inquisitive mutt became almost as famous as Sir Geoff Hurst and his team-mates, who later that summer went on to win England’s first and only world crown.
The English were renowned dog lovers long before the inquisitive Pickles appeared on the scene. Proof of that came at Chile 1962 when the men in white took on Brazil for a place in the semi-finals. During the course of the game a stray dog ran on to the pitch, causing play to be held up.
After Brazilian wing wizard Garrincha (who took his name from the Portuguese for “wren”) had tried in vain to apprehend the intruder, England striker Jimmy Greaves put his dog-training skills to use.
Getting down on all fours and looking the pooch firmly in the eyes, the prolific striker managed to catch hold of him, only for the dog to urinate on his captor. “I smelled awful,” recalls Greaves. “I should have had lots of chances that day because none of the Brazilian defenders wanted to get near me after that.”
Another member of the canine population with a claim to fame is Bryn, a police dog from the southern English town of Torquay who helped save the local club from relegation one day. Looking on as Torquay United (who are nicknamed The Gulls incidentally) took on Crewe Alexandra in a decisive end-of-season match, the inquisitive hound ventured on to the pitch and bit home favourite John McNichol. Play was held up for several minutes while the victim received treatment, with the referee adding on several minutes of injury time as a result. And as fate would have, The Gulls swooped in time added on, scoring the equalising goal that kept them up that season.
French genius Eric Cantona was perhaps inspired by the south coast side’s feats when he made this enigmatic but memorable declaration back in 1995: “When the seagulls follow the trawler, it is because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea.”
From metaphorical seagulls we move on to real ones and the city of Vigo, on Spain’s north-western coast. Situated close to the port, Celta Vigo’s Estadio Balaidos is often frequented by curious gulls, many of whom turned up in numbers for the visit of Real Madrid one year, causing the referee to hold the game up until they were chased away. That was not soon enough for Merengue striker Fernando Morientes, who had to fend off an attack by an audacious member of the flock.
Morientes could have done with having former Newcastle United and current Nigeria front man Obafemi Martins around to protect him. The Super Eagle striker revealed his avian instinct in a 2006 meeting between The Magpies and Reading at St James’ Park, successfully trapping a bird that had strayed on to the pitch. Legendary German goalkeeper Sepp Maier got up to similar antics during a 1970s Bundesliga match between Bayern Munich and Bochum, famously diving on top of a duck that was holding up proceedings as the Bavarians waited to take a penalty.
The Brazilians have problems aplenty with the queros-queros, an unpredictable fowl that would not have looked out of place in the Hitchcock thriller The Birds, and which has a reputation for attacking unsuspecting players.
Fans of Portuguese giants Benfica are far more attached to their club mascot, an eagle by the name of Victoria. This imposing bird of prey flies majestically around the cavernous Estadio da Luz before every game and brings the home side luck by alighting on the club crest, which is topped by an eagle, Benfica’s symbol since its foundation in 1904.
Back in 1967 Independiente fans went to unusual lengths to bring bad luck on Argentinian league rivals Racing Club. Taking advantage of La Academia’s trip to Montevideo to face Glasgow Celtic in a play-off in that year’s Intercontinental Cup final, a group of Rojo supporters stole into their opponent’s home stadium and buried seven dead cats in the ground. Sure enough, the hex worked, with Racing going trophyless for the next 34 years. In 2001, however, the cats were discovered during rebuilding work and promptly exhumed, with Racing going on to win the Apertura championship just a few months later.
Various stadiums around the globe have suffered other untimely intrusions. In October 2009, for example, a vast swarm of bees made an impromptu appearance at the Estadio Azteca prior to Mexico’s South Africa 2010 qualifier with El Salvador. The invasion did not put the Mexicans off their game though, and when play finally got under way they swatted their opponents aside, winning 4-1 to book their place in the finals.
Those angry bees are not the only members of the animal world to hold up play in recent years. At the 2009 UEFA Cup final between Werder Bremen and Shakhtar Donetsk a grey cat brought the game to a halt, with a ginger tabby cat doing likewise when UAE faced Honduras at the FIFA U-20 World Cup Egypt 2009, and a squirrel bringing Arsenal’s 2006 UEFA Champions League semi-final with Villarreal to a standstill.
Equally problematic was the owl that took up residence in one of the goals during a UEFA EURO 2008 qualifier between Finland and Belgium, not to mention the wading bird that ambled on to the pitch when Kenya and Morocco faced off in a Germany 2006 qualifying tie. And let us not forget FK Obilic’s cuddly club mascot, a baby tiger, which made a dramatic on-pitch appearance before the 1999 Champions League tie against Bayern Munich.
Never mind the Laws of the Game; sometimes in football it is the law of the jungle that applies.