Forget Forlan, forget Muller, forget Iniesta. If there was one undisputed star of the FIFA World Cup™ just past, it was not any of these on-song stars, but a certain cephalopod over 5,000 miles away.
After all, impressive though Forlan and Co were, none could claim that their performances throughout South Africa 2010 were flawless. Paul the octopus, on the other hand, never put a foot, or tentacle, wrong during a month that witnessed his meteoric rise to superstardom - and ended with a transfer tug-of-war.
For anyone somehow unaware of what all the fuss was about, Paul’s celebrity status was earned by an unblemished run of eight successful predictions from the first round of group matches all the way through to the Final. The method by which Oberhausen Sea Life Centre’s most famous resident picked his winners was to eat a mussel from one of two containers, each adorned with the flags of the competing nations. So unerring did he prove that several news channels across Europe began to broadcast Paul’s predictions live, while the phrases ‘Paul the Octopus’ and ‘Pulpo’ - the Spanish word for octopus - generated huge internet traffic, taking their place Twitter’s top ten global trends.
Not that his success gained him universal popularity. When, after correctly predicting the outcome of Germany’s first four matches, Paul tipped Joachim Low’s side to see off Argentina, Nicolas Bedorrou – a famous Argentinian chef – reacted by posting an octopus recipe on facebook. Worse was to follow when an erstwhile adoring German public turned on their ‘psychic’ mascot for foreseeing their semi-final defeat to Spain, with anti-octopus songs chanted at Berlin’s Fan Fest and newspapers filled with headlines such as ‘Throw him in the frying pan’ and suggestions that he be transferred to the shark enclosure.
However, at the same time he was being labelled a ‘traitor’ in Germany, Paul was becoming a hero in Spain, especially after he followed up his last four forecast by predicting La Roja’s first-ever FIFA World Cup Final win. Spanish prime minister Jose Luis Rodríguez Zapatero even light-heartedly promised to send a team of bodyguards to protect this unlikeliest of football icons, while environment minister Elena Espinosa promised protection under conservation laws.
Offers from Spanish businessmen also began to arrive, a summer festival was planned in the octopus’s name, while many fans of the fans who cheered Iniesta and Co to the title sported t-shirts and hats bearing the image of their new hero. Some even suggested the octopus should replace the bull as Spain’s national symbol.
Elsewhere, a passionate debate arose over Paul’s nationality as the tournament drew to a close, with his German trainer suggesting that he had been caught in Italian waters, not hatched at an English Sea Life Centre as originally suggested. "The octopus's name is Paolo!" was the reaction of sports newspaper Tuttosport, while Il Corriere della Sera claimed the news offered "small satisfaction for Italy at the end of a tournament that has given the Azzurri very little joy.”
Even when the curtain came down on South Africa 2010 and the Oberhausen Sea Life Centre announced that Paul would be retiring on a high and “getting back to his former job of making children laugh,” the drama continued, as Madrid Zoo mounted an audacious transfer bid for their very own Galactico. Zoo spokeswoman Amparo Fernandez spoke of a desire to acquire Paul as a tribute to the triumphant Spanish team, saying: "They brought the World Cup, we [will] bring Paul. He's a symbol of this championship."
Yet despite the offer of other animals and a ‘transfer fee’, not to mention an additional bid from a Russian betting firm, it seems that Paul will be staying put in Germany. "It's totally out of the question to sell Paul or lend him out," Sea Life spokeswoman Kerstin Kuehn announced yesterday. "He will enjoy his greatly deserved retirement in Oberhausen."
It seems, therefore, that Paul will be allowed to quietly leave the stage, leaving wildlife experts and football fans alike to wonder just how an octopus managed to predict his way to become a FIFA World Cup legend.