Editor's note: This is the latest of Sam Borden's Postcards from Russia, in which he shares his observations, fears, joys and travel stories from the 2018 World Cup.
MOSCOW -- I love mascots. I always have, too, perhaps because I have always had an affinity for stuffed animals of all kinds. For a long time earlier in my career, I actually traveled with three stuffed hippos whenever I was on a road trip, and my wife and I still have a fairly large collection of stuffed animals that exists apart from the substantial assortment that my daughters keep.
(The hippos' names, if you're curious, are Horatio, Hank and Happy. They are enjoying their retirement.)
Anyway, with that background, consider this: I have mixed feelings about Zabivaka, the anthropomorphic Eurasian wolf that is the mascot of this World Cup.
Now, according to FIFA, Zabivaka is a peppy ambassador who "radiates fun, charm and confidence." And, on first glance, he is certainly adorable. But as soon as I heard his name, something felt strange to me.
Sam Borden's Postcards from Russia
- Searching for American fans at the World Cup
- What U.S. sport could learn from international football
- In search of World Cup fever on the streets of Russia
- 'The sea is digging a new nipple': Misadventures in Cyrillic
A few days ago, with the help of my friend (and landlord here in Moscow), Patrick, I figured it out: Zabivaka, which organizers say means "the one who scores," seems like a perfect name for a soccer mascot. But it is also remarkably close to several other words in Russian that, shall we say, are not quite as friendly.
The one that got me thinking was zabivka, which is a term for a short, violent, high-energy fight video generally uploaded to the internet by hooligans. I learned about zabivka while reporting a big project on underground Russian fight clubs and hooliganism, and judging by this short article (you can just look at the pictures), I was fairly late to the party in terms of making the connection between Zabivaka and other Russian words that have to do with, among other things, bullying, violence and the recreational use of marijuana.
Now, to be clear, the name thing is only part of it. I have not yet met Zabivaka in person (such as it is), but I have closely observed him at a few games and fan events and, if I'm being honest, have not been impressed by either his agility, creativity or warmth.
Part of that, I admit, may be historical reverence for Russia's most famous mascot. The 2014 Sochi Olympics actually had three mascots, a polar bear, a hare and a snow leopard -- which, in my opinion, diluted the staying power of any one of them -- but the gold standard for Russian mascots remains Misha, the cuddly and sensitive bear who was the mascot of the 1980 Moscow Summer Games.
Misha, with his plush fur and unbreakable, wide smile, captivated audiences and is generally regarded as the first mascot to be a commercial success, making appearances in TV shows and even films. Part of what everyone loved about Misha was his simplicity and emotional availability: one of the most memorable moments of the closing ceremony was when Misha actually shed tears that the Games were done.
Then, in a beautiful coda, a giant balloon version of Misha was sent aloft, flying high above the stadium and into the night sky. Untethered, Balloon Misha -- like the Olympic athletes he adored -- was free to go in search of his next adventure.
It was thrilling. It was captivating. It was magical. And, while I certainly hope that I am wrong, I fear that Zabivaka, lovely as he may be, is no Misha.