If you think of it, the World Cup presents the host nation with the ultimate chance to showcase its people and culture with global attention at its disposal, unlike the scale of any other event.
Fans worldwide look forward to the big reveal of the official football mascot among the most memorable elements.
In the history of the quadrennial mega-event, there have been several attempts by nations to showcase their essence in the form of playful, relatable animation.
This simple practice is unlike McDonald’s Happy Meal releases, but the two acts are strikingly similar. The attempt to relate with children and be the friendly face of the brand or the country remains the same.
Often, it’s a game of a hit or a miss. The evolution of the mascot has not been without its fair share of controversy either. However rife with subjectivity, a fan favorite was Brazil’s three-banded armadillo Fuleco in 2014. Perhaps it was its striking colors or that it raised awareness about the animal’s environmental threat.
The first-ever mascot in 1996, Willie the lion with a Union Jack in all its glory, is fondly remembered by fans. Willie was conjured up by one of Enid Blyton’s illustrators, a commercial artist named Reg Hoye.
In contrast, in 2006, Germany employed a duo as its mascots. You may recall Goleo the lion and his talking football, Pille. The goal was to get a younger demographic interested in the game. While they faced criticism for not being indigenous to Germany, the duo garnered a lot of interest and are fondly remembered by fans. Similarly, in 2018, Zabivaka, the wolf from Russia, followed in the footsteps of Puerto Rico’s Naranjito the orange, Footix the football-playing rooster, and Fuleco, the armadillo.
More recently, the FIFA World Cup 2022 unveiled La’eeb meaning “skilled player” in Arabic, as Qatar’s official mascot, garnering mixed reactions.
Twitterati was quick to judge La’eeb, boiling its likeness down to a “ghost”, “jinn”, or “tissue paper”.
From a cultural perspective, La’eeb resembles the Arab headdress known as ghutrah (meaning “to cover” in Arabic), the roots of which lie in Bedouin culture. The traditional white headscarf has been an everyday staple for men – worn for centuries to complement the white kandoura, held in place by the agal, an ornate headband. Other than local merchants, the guthrah has been revamped and sold by luxury brands Giorgio Armani, Aigner, and Gucci, to name a few.
Unlike many mascots of the past, La’eeb is devoid of common cultural elements – namely, camels, falcons, or Arabian onyx – associated with the Middle East. La’eeb is a bit more “innovative, devoid of clichés,” says Mahmood Amr, a senior student at the American University of Sharjah.
La’eeb has also inspired several communities on the decentralized autonomous organization (DAO). A China-based coin holder of the La’eeb token says it was launched in a pancake swap in April after major interest was piqued by its “playful” design that has garnered a lot of interest. “After two months in development, the number of token holders is 7,600”. The La’eeb “craze” will crawl on as the World Cup approaches because there is a “group of people in our community who are firmly promoting it every day,” he adds.
Interestingly, the book, Hats and Headwear around the World: A Cultural Encyclopedia records the Arab headdress or guthrah’s several variations across the region. “The ghutrah is an ancient styled square head scarf made of wool, silk, or a cotton blend, used most commonly by men in desert or arid regions of the Middle East and North Africa,” the book states.
“The average size worn by adult males is approximately four feet by four feet wide. Folded into a triangle, with the crease placed across the forehead, the furthest two points may be pulled under the chin, then around the sides of the neck to the nape where they are tied in the back.
This method results in a secure fabric shield to help protect the face and neck from blowing desert sand and intense sunlight. While variations abound, one particularly common type of ghutrah favored by Jordanians, Lebanese and Palestinians is the keffiyeh, made of red-and-white or black-and-white checkered heavy cotton fabric with tassels.”
Now, some young men toss the edges of the scarf over the shoulders or around the head as a style statement. In the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and other Gulf states, the heavy cotton headscarf is called a shemagh, and a lighter white version, the ghutrah.
“La’eeb strikes a familiar chord with many people in the Middle East as it has elements that are traditional to many Arab countries, not just Qatar,” said Rabi Ezz-Eldine, a Lebanese football enthusiast. “It’s good to see a mascot which is an Arab look-alike.”
“My first impression was that the logo is good in terms of familiarity, having the FIFA event happening in the region is very beneficial not just for tourism but also for cultural exchange. The Arab mascot compliments that. However, I’d have preferred a different design as this one looks like Casper. It looks happy though. So, a more detailed aesthetic would have added impact,” says Amani Qaddoumi, Brand Designer and Strategist, Founder of alb.
Given that the mascot represents traditional Arab attire, Abbas Alahmadi, a local designer says it could’ve been better represented. “I believe the attire could’ve been better represented through the mascot”, he says. Another Dubai-based graphic designer, Jan Sanchez points out that while the mascot is animated and drawn well and is a fair attempt to represent Arab culture, it falls short because “it only focuses on the clothes of men”, making a case for an alternative design choice to represent the region’s initiatives to support women in sport.
So while La’eeb may not exactly be the Casper of our dreams, he is representative of the region’s roots that goes back eons. While the guthrah is still worn by nomads of the desert, you see royalty, officials, soldiers, delegations, models and entrepreneurs dawning it, too.
This may explain why the official trailer showcases La’eeb in a mascot-verse wherein he meets mascots of the past tournaments and explains his complex association with football. In addition to creating the first-ever flying mascot, La’eeb’s creation marks several milestones. He’s the first representative of Middle Eastern culture to join the heritage of FIFA World Cup mascots. But what many have missed is he’s probably the first wardrobe essential to be made a mascot. After all, the guthrah is iconic – it has stood the test of time and is still worn by Arabs across the region.
Will this be the destiny of La’eeb? Time will tell as it did for the humble guthrah.
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