Mascots have been part of World Cup competitions since as early as 1966 with Willy the Lion in England. Along with the Official Emblem and Official Look of the tournament the Official Mascot is an important component of the overall event brand that represents the tournament and the host country.
Unlike the other assets, the mascot is a living embodiment of energy and attitude that can appeal to any audience, though, much like all the other assets, the process to finalise the mascot and its name is at the end of a long legally-worded (for the most part) document and months (maybe years) of back and forth.
Much like most tournaments, the conceptualisation of the FIFA U-17 World Cup India 2017 Official Mascot started more than two years before the start of the tournament. A young, skilled and energetic clouded leopard from the Himalayas was the eventual choice though we didn’t always know that was going to be the case.
A parakeet (small parrot) and squirrel almost nibbled their way past our gallant 16-year-old KHELEO who made it out in front, to face those 1.3 million spectators during the tournament and many more leading up to it.
Kheleo was one of those characters that we envisioned being able to interact with all age groups and be the one doing all the party tricks. He did come good. To talk about the way we came up with his name we would need to go even further back to the plan we had for him (I say ‘him’ since one of the rules in the legal document mentions ‘Official Mascot will adopt the sex of contenders in the FIFA competition’) much before we even had a draft sketch.
It might seem easy enough to have a mascot but having one versus maximising one can really strengthen or dampen one’s campaign. For us, the easiest and most effective way to maximise Kheleo was going to be through Mission Eleven Million (MXIM). We made sure he was part of as many football festivals as possible and was almost always (depending on India’s tropical climate and more so since he is used to the Himalayan breeze and clean air) the star of the show.
Apart from MXIM, we drew up an elaborate event-wise (not only World Cup-related events but included local festivals like Ganpati visarjan at Mumbai's chowpatty beach as well) itinerary that the mascot could be part of. The beauty of it was that even though we could not have more than one life-size mascot in one location (part of the rules) at the same time, we certainly could have him in multiple cities at the same time.
Also, with regard to using the mascot image we tried to ensure that it was part of all artworks that had the tournament look in it. A smiley face at every turn always increases the happiness quotient of any event.
Khel, Veer, Tez, Lakshya, Bagh along with probably 50 or more words in English, Hindi and few other languages too had completely covered the largest whiteboard we had in the office. Trying all the possible permutations and combinations to come up with something simple yet catchy and had some kind of back story as well, we finally had our eureka moment with KHELEO. Using the word khel (play in Hindi) and having the play on leo for leopard or leo for Leo Messi (even has the same date of birth), the combination of which rang perfectly and sounded like an invitation to play when said in Hindi.
We did have to submit contenders like Veeru, Bhaghino, Tezinder to the higher-ups but we knew the winner and made sure it stuck. Next thing you know there is a giant statue of Kheleo outside the Guwahati stadium. Work for something hard enough and you will get more than you ask for.
Finalising the actual mascot design was one thing but getting his actual life-size costume was another and to top it all we needed to time all of it to perfection to ensure we have everything in place for our LOC Chairman and Sports Minister to unveil.
If you have never been in a mascot costume before then you are probably smart. It is by far one of the most fun yet most thankless jobs. The suit can definitely get hot, sweaty, smelly, suffocating and heavy all at the same time. Though while that happens you can’t really wipe the smile off your (costume’s) face which means your body language needs to remain happy. We used to have multiple people volunteer to be in the suit, but only a few came back for seconds. The ones who came back, I am sure will be able to achieve anything they set their minds to.
In the LOC, we almost used it as a sort of incentive (euphemism in this case) to get work done. “Do you want to be Kheleo at our next event? Do you?”
A fun story I recollect when we decided to take Kheleo on live television along with FIFA World Cup Winner Carles Puyol at the Sony Studios. The costume was on its way from elsewhere so did not arrive with us. Conveniently, the guy (smart fellow) who was supposed to get in the suit did not show up in the taxi (which arrived literally eight minutes before we went live).
Having to take a call whether Kheleo gets on-air in front of a 50 million plus live audience or not, I decided to jump out of my slick formals and jump into the suit. All this was much to the amusement and appreciation of the senior broadcast staff there. I was alone on this one. Me being the sales person I am managed to convince a backstage staff literally three minutes before getting on stage, to take my place; 'Book your place in history' were my words to him).
Let’s hope the ones who still think I was in the suit don’t read this. As for the show, it went off great. As for Kheleo, he was already a television star five months before kick-off. We could not have asked for more.