THE BLOG

During This World Cup, Root for the Underdog -- FIFA's Armadillo Mascot

06/26/2014 12:28 pm ET | Updated Aug 26, 2014
Ronald Martinez via Getty Images

A Brazilian armadillo that rolls up to about the size of a soccer ball? What a perfect mascot for the 2014 World Cup. Combine the Portuguese words for football and ecology and you get Fuleco, the mascot modeled after the three-banded armadillo--an animal aptly known as "tatu bola" or "armadillo ball." The three-pound mammal can roll into an almost perfectly shaped sphere when threatened. Problem is it's threatened a lot by hunting and deforestation. In fact, the little guy is in danger of extinction. So it's wonderful that FIFA, the huge organization running one of the largest and most popular sporting events in the world, is bringing attention to this species' plight. Oh wait, it's not.

Look, FIFA isn't known for being very kind to the countries that host the World Cup. Just watch comedian John Oliver skewer FIFA, a nonprofit with $1 billion in the bank, for being corrupt, putting profits above anything else, and creating more problems for the host country than it provides opportunities. (Seriously, watch it. It's pretty funny.)

But that's why scientists from universities in Brazil and Mexico called for the organization to donate 1,000 hectares (3.8 square miles) of armadillo habitat for every goal scored. Based on the number of previous World Cup goals, that could result in 606 square miles of conserved land. And the Brazilian government knows just where FIFA could help. The Minister of Environment identified more than 80 locations in 2000 that are conservation priorities.

Most of those places are in the Caatinga, a tropical dry forest that's the least protected ecosystem in Brazil and home to you guessed it, Fuleco. Vulnerable to hunting and habitat loss (deforestation and agriculture have decreased its habitat to just half of what it once was), this iconic three-banded armadillo needs a win. And according to a study by researchers from Brazil and Mexico, FIFA could do one of three things to make their mascot be a winner this tournament season: fund national, state, and municipal parks, designate new protected areas in the Caatinga, and fast-track conservation plans for the species.

"The Caatinga is a uniquely Brazilian ecosystem. By acting boldly and swiftly, FIFA and the Brazilian government could help save the Brazilian three-banded armadillo and protect thousands of hectares of its habitat," says Enrico Bernard, one of the authors based at the Federal University of Pernambuco. "That would be the best goal scored this Cup."

The Brazilian Environment Ministry invited more than 30 scientists to the reserve of Serra das Almas earlier this month to come up with a conservation plan for the three-banded armadillo, but hasn't yet responded directly the scientists making the demands to the Brazilian government and FIFA, the BBC reports. It's good step, says Rodrigo Castro of the Caatinga Association, an NGO that has worked for the protection of the species for more than 10 years, but it'll take more work to actually see results. Their hope is to see more conserved land and higher armadillo populations in five years.

OK, OK, but why would anyone expect FIFA to pour money into conservation efforts for the armadillo? It does have a sustainability strategy, but it doesn't include specific actions for endangered species. Instead, a FIFA spokesman says that the mascot "has helped to raise awareness in Brazil around the three-banded armadillo and its status as a vulnerable species." Sure, soccer fans may be aware that an armadillo is the World Cup's mascot, but that knowledge isn't exactly going to make conservationists yell, "GOOOOOOOOAAAAAAAAAAAAALLLLLL."

Symbols can be valuable tools, but when Fuleco is facing a sudden death match against habitat loss--in a region with a deforestation rate of 0.7 percent a year, one of the highest in the world--money talks. And this mascot--appearing on t-shirts, posters, jackets, hats, balls, and shin guards everywhere--is helping FIFA bring in big bucks. The World Cup organizers will make millions on Fuleco merchandise. Surely they could throw a few back to tuta bola.