A tiger, a wolf or a cat. In just a few weeks' time, we will discover which of these animal designs will become the fun, cuddly face of the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™.

It was, though, with a lion that the tradition of official World Cup mascots began half-a-century ago. With his union flag football shirt and ‘60s mop-top mane, ‘World Cup Willie’ was a high-profile presence throughout England 1966, becoming popular with fans both young and old.

The lion, seen here welcoming West Germany captain Uwe Seeler, appeared both as a ‘live’ mascot and as a cartoon design on merchandise and other promotional material. Most remarkably, he was even the subject of the official England 1966 song, performed by a hugely successful pop star of the era, Lonnie Donegan.

The man behind the mascot was Reg Hoye, an illustrator of children’s books. The commercial artist had provided tournament organisers with four potential designs and the winner was a lion based on his son, Leo. The boy who provided that inspiration was, in fact, tracked down in Hong Kong by the BBC a few years ago and spoke of his pride in both the mascot and his father, who passed away in 1987.

"Willie was used on everything from tea towels to bedspreads and mugs,” said Leo. “All those things are very common (as merchandise) now but at the time it was very new. My father was very patriotic, so he was very happy about the excitement that surrounded Willie.”

Every World Cup since has had its own official mascot, and Hoye Jnr believed that this enduring success story owes much to the international appeal of the original. "Willie is not just remembered in Britain but by people of my generation from other countries,” he said. “There was nothing threatening about him, which is one reason he was so popular internationally.

"There was a lot of interest from West Germany and the Soviet Union, which was quite extraordinary. Everyone entered into the spirit of celebrating sport without the nationalism you see today. I've looked through the FA's archives and there was tremendous interest in Willie from all over the world."

That interest is sure to be there again when the Russia 2018 organisers unveil their chosen design. And whichever animal they choose, it will do well to match the success of this 50-year-old lion.

Did you know?
The FIFA World Football Museum in Zurich features an interactive exhibit where visitors can view each of the World Cup mascots and guess the identity of a hidden one.