His name is Paul, he has eight legs and he flaunts a flexibility that would put to shame the ethics code of any self-respecting investment bank on Wall Street. What’s more, he’s one of the stars of the World Cup blazing on zillions of TV screens around the world. Yet Paul has never set foot on a soccer field, never kicked a ball and to this day most of his running has been devoted to chasing lobsters. Paul, you see, is an octopus.
OctoPaul is, at present, an inmate at the Oberhausen aquarium in Germany, where he has entered the V.I.P. lounge of animal oracle lore due to the uncanny precision in his predictions on the outcome of crucial sports events. He works his magic according to a strict procedure: his caretakers introduce into his tank two boxes containing the flags of the opposing teams (and a mussel in each for him to snack on, post-decision). Then, while the world news media eagerly waits, OctoPaul, cucumber-cool and donning his trademark deep-thinking face, settles on one of them.
He deserves his own show in Vegas plus a cut of the action because, these days, the smart money is on Paul’s side, whichever he chooses. Some claim his infallibility nears that of the pope, while others, enraged by his prophecies, have complained that Paul should be served in a garlicky sauce with potatoes and parsley. Recently, Paul did it again, correctly predicting that Spain, sporting her best team in many years, would defeat the stellar German team last Wednesday.
Spain’s victory, won with a magnificent head strike from Barcelona’s Carles Puyol, set a historical mark: for the first time the Spanish team has advanced to the World Cup final. Thousands and thousands of Spanish fans in dire need of good news have taken to the streets in joy.
Good news in Spain, as in most of the Western world, has proved scarce in recent times — so, yes, we’ll take any glimpse of the stocking we can get. But it’s true: what sense of unity and positive energy Spaniards have experienced in the past few months, that rare feeling of “getting it right,” has come almost exclusively from our athletes, from Rafa Nadal’s No. 1 tennis ranking and eight Grand Slam titles to Pau Gasol’s recent triumph with the Los Angeles Lakers. Meanwhile, corruption scandals and somber economic signs and the farcical battles of everyday politics loom over perhaps too much circus and not enough bread.
I confess I was never a great soccer fan, yet in the last few days, seeing the sense of joy and passion the game is bringing to the lives of Spaniards looking to cheer for something or someone actually worth it, I’ve been following the World Cup and rooting for the team to crown what is already a job well done. Like a steamy summer romance, this euphoria cannot last long, but it sure is nice while it does. What the future will bring, maybe only Paul the Octopus knows. And by the way, Paul predicted Spain will win the final.
Which brings me to ponder if such a wise and charming creature shouldn’t be granted an amnesty and a return to the ocean. Or maybe it would be wiser to extend his contract and appoint him to higher responsibilities. Because when all the wonderful sound and fury of the World Cup has faded, it would be swell to have someone honest, decent and smart to point the way ahead. And these days, the more you look around, the more an octopus serving time in a German aquarium looks like a contender.
So, may the best win, and may that optimistic, hard-working spirit the Spanish team has displayed so far permeate other spheres of the country’s public life that could use a serious kick. Perhaps that, beyond Sunday’s chance at glory, should be the real goal. For once the game is over, all eyes must go back to the ball.
Carlos Ruiz Zafón, the author, most recently, of The Angel’s Game.