Move over Megan Rapinoe: Meet Tazuni, the blue-haired World Cup penguin


WELLINGTON, New Zealand — At a soccer ground in the Wellington beachside suburb of Island Bay over the weekend, a tall figure with a shock of blue hair greeted a new generation of young soccer fans.

No, it wasn’t Megan Rapinoe. It was a penguin chosen as the official mascot for the Women’s World Cup — or rather a human in a penguin costume.

The tournament kicks off Thursday with an opening game between co-host New Zealand and Norway in Auckland, and in Sydney between the other co-host, Australia, and Ireland.

Along with their shared affinity for vibrant hair colors, Tazuni the penguin is a midfielder like Rapinoe. FIFA didn’t respond to a request for comment on whether Rapinoe was the official inspiration.

While the celebrated U.S. player will retire at the end of the 2023 National Women’s Soccer League, 15-year-old Tazuni is at the start of her career — parachuting into the tournament after playing a game with a group of children on a beach. (FIFA uses she/her pronouns for Tazuni.)

Tazuni’s name combines that of the Tasman Sea — the body of water between Australia and New Zealand, often shortened colloquially to “the Tazzie” — and unity, a key theme of the tournament.

“Tazuni is the perfect mascot for this tournament, exemplifying all that is positive about the biggest women’s football event ever staged, and our sport-obsessed host nations who are ready to welcome the world,” FIFA Chief Women’s Football Officer Sarai Bareman said in a statement. “Like millions of youngsters worldwide, football is how Tazuni expresses herself.”

Soccer proponents hope the World Cup — with matches played across New Zealand and Australia over the next month — will bring more girls into the sport. Both nations are known for their devotion to sports such as rugby and, in Australia’s case, “Aussie rules,” although that is changing with stars like Sam Kerr winning new fans.

Among the anti-discrimination efforts, FIFA plans to hang Indigenous flags at World Cup stadiums in Australia and New Zealand. Players will be able to choose from eight armbands highlighting a range of social causes including gender equality, ending hunger and stopping violence against women.

There is also a multicolored “unite for inclusion” option, featuring the same colors as the OneLove armband promoting diversity, inclusion and LGBTQ+ rights that was effectively banned by FIFA at the men’s World Cup in Qatar in 2022. Some critics have said the armbands are a watered-down version of the real thing.

World Cup tournaments typically have mascots. In France in 2019, the mascot was a chicken. Officials based Tazuni on the Eudyptula minor species of penguin endemic to Australia and New Zealand. She also features on tournament merchandise and a series of Australian postage stamps.

Carolyn Miller, an Australian marketing expert, said the ideal mascot should embody an event in a simple, lovable character that appeals to children in particular.

“It can really be a beacon for people to identify [with],” she said.

Tazuni is less weird than some of Australia’s previous mascots for sporting events.

At the 1982 Commonwealth Games in Brisbane, spectators were confronted with the sight of a 43-foot-tall kangaroo built with long, mechanically blinking eyelashes and a pouch that opened and shut.

Her name was Matilda, which was partly the inspiration for the name of the Australian women’s soccer team, the Matildas, according to the Australian Broadcasting Corp.

At the 2000 Sydney Olympics, the official mascots were a trio of native animals named Syd, Olly and Millie. But the unofficial “Fatso the Wombat,” dreamed up by two local comedians, proved to be as much of a hit.

Miller approved of FIFA’s choice of a “cute little penguin” for the World Cup. “The rest of the world looks at Australia and New Zealand often thinks of cute, fuzzy animals,” she said.

In the past few weeks, Tazuni has visited the Sydney Harbor Bridge, performed with dancers at the final draw at Auckland’s Aotea Centre, and hung out at training sessions ahead of the World Cup, including with Argentina, Vietnam, Portugal and the United States.

Her stroll around Island Bay on Saturday was timed to coincide with a match between two teams in the highest league for women in the area, the Wellington United Diamonds versus the Manawatu Knitting Mills PN Marist FC.

Vinall reported from Sydney.


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