Ladies and gentlemen, start your psychic octopuses. The biggest and strangest sporting event in human history resumes next week in Russia, where thirty-two men’s national soccer teams will begin the monthlong competition for the strangely un-cup-like trophy given to the winners of the FIFA World Cup. For many of the world’s best soccer players, the tournament offers a chance to become legends in their home countries and icons in the history of the game. For billions of soccer fans, the tournament offers a chance to participate in modernity’s most sweeping collective frenzy, a spectacle that will shape the emotional context in which much of human life transpires for the next few weeks. For the United States men’s national team, which did not qualify, the tournament offers a chance to feel gloomy while eating Cheetos on the couch.
There is a great deal to say about all this, but let’s start with the cephalopods. The first octopus to attain wide notice as a soccer oracle was Paul—die Krake Paul, Paul the Octopus. Paul was hatched in Weymouth, England, in 2008. As a young octopus, he emigrated to Germany (this was, of course, before Brexit), where he spent most of his life in a tank at the Sea Life Centre in Oberhausen. In the summer of 2010, he successfully predicted the outcomes of all seven of Germany’s World Cup matches, unerringly choosing to eat first from the box marked by what would prove to be the winning nation’s flag. Hungry for glory and also mussels, he then correctly predicted Spain’s win, over the Netherlands, in the final. Paul became a sensation, inspiring songs, TV segments, and a seventy-two-minute documentary. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was then the President of Iran, attacked him as an agent of Western propaganda; when Paul died at the age of two, in October, 2010, his death was covered by the BBC, the Washington Post, Der Spiegel, and the New York Times.
After Paul’s demise, new psychic octopi swam up to fill the tentacled void, which sounds like an H. P. Lovecraft novella but was, in this case, mostly an opening for retweets. In Andalusia, there was Iker the Octopus. In Australia, there was Cassandra. Other species came trumpeting, sometimes literally, into the field. The 2014 World Cup, in Brazil, inspired predictions from a trio of gentoo penguins, in Birmingham, England; a pair of miniature donkeys, in Somerset; and a