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 Thursday, April 26, 2001 15:32 EST

Ato, Nik and Kaz picked by fans


SEOUL – Computer-animated mascots called Ato, Nik and Kaz will bring a futuristic feel to the 2002 World Cup marking a radical change from the cuddly characters which have been used to promote the finals over the years.

2002 World Cup mascots, Nik, Ato and Kaz (left to right), stand with Chung Mong-joon, FIFA Vice-president and chairman of the Korean Organizing Committee.
The first mascot was furry lion World Cup Willie, who was a great success at the tournament hosted in England 35 years ago and started the trend for playful symbols to market the event.

But the latest World Cup mascots, whose names were unveiled in Seoul on Thursday, come from the highly-successful cartoon industries of co-hosts Japan and South Korea and FIFA has even admitted that some younger children may be frightened by them.

Their names were chosen from a short list drawn up after 980,000 ballots were cast by fans via the Internet and at fast food outlets across the two host countries.

"We organized the naming contest to boost people's participation in the games," Lee Yun-taek, co-chairman of the Korean Organising Committee for the World Cup (KOWOC), said.

The blue, yellow and purple mascots, from an imaginary family of thorny-headed characters called "Spheriks," will be featured on various World Cup memorabilia such as T-shirts, caps and badges.

According to a statement accompanying their introduction in December 1999, the trio live high in the sky in a place called Atmozone where they play their own version of soccer called Atmoball.

There, they create a great atmosphere around the game - the kind of atmosphere created back here on earth when humans go to a match.

It is obviously felt that they have a greater potential for marketing tie-ins and it will be hoped that they can emulate the massive global success of the Japanese cartoon Pokemon.

The success of World Cup Willie -- a soccer-playing lion in a union jack waistcoat -- in 1966 led to the design and naming of a mascot becoming a regular feature of the finals.

Willie was followed in 1970 by Juanito, a little Mexican boy in a sombrero and football kit.

West Germany upped the stakes in 1974 with two extremely cheerful rosy-cheeked characters called Tip and Tap.

For the 1978 finals in Argentina, it was back to the single boy, Gauchito, who appeared to have dismounted his horse for a quick kickaround on the pampas.

The Spanish -- with half an eye on their export markets no doubt -- dispensed with humanity for their 1982 mascot Naranjito, a smiling orange carrying a football.

Back in Mexico in 1986, Juanito gave way to more fruit and veg fun with the chilipepper, Pique.

Italian design gave the mascot a more modern look for the 1990 finals, with their multi-coloured stick man called Ciao sporting a football for his head.

In the U.S. in 1994 a smiling dog, imaginatively named Striker, presided over events, and France continued with the animal trend in 1998 with their cockerel Footix.

Mascots can be a serious business in co-host country Korea, where cuddly cartoon figures are used to market various bodies, both in the public and private sectors.

The craze for mascots started with Hodori, the cartoon tiger which helped market the 1988 Seoul Olympics, and since then mascots have been used by a tourism campaign, the Korean post office and the Seoul police among others.

The attempt to soften the image of the capital's police -- previously more associated with riots and tear gas -- was spearheaded by the introduction of a smiling ape-like creature in police uniform called Podori earlier this year.

Koreans got their first proper glimpse of the World Cup mascots in central Seoul on Thursday.

"It's easy to spot, with very clear colors," said Hwang Young-sun, 30, trying to interest her infant daughter in the yellow "Ato."

"I hope the World Cup will be held successfully and that my country wins," she said.

"They're unique-looking," said Kim Koo, 21.

"The names are unusual, but the committee's done a good job," he added.

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