When England were pegged back to 1-1 by Australia striker Sam Kerr‘s wonder-goal midway through the second half of their Women’s World Cup semifinal Wednesday, it felt as though the match could have gone either way before the Lionesses stormed back to win 3-1 in Sydney.
But while coach Sarina Wiegman and her unstoppable squad deserve all the credit for reaching their first-ever World Cup final, where they will face Spain on Sunday, it would appear that their victory was already confirmed before a ball had even been kicked at Stadium Australia.
Indeed, England’s progression to the final has been foretold every step of the way by a clan (and yes, that is the correct collective noun) of meerkats who have successfully predicted the Lionesses’ results through the knockout phase.
The clairvoyant critters in question reside at Drusillas Park, a zoo located in the southeast of England, and they are now 3-for-3 when it comes to forecasting the outcome of the national team’s World Cup knockout games.
The meerkats have been selecting their winner before every England game via a system comprising of two food buckets, one marked with the England flag and the other with the colours of their opposition. The animals, which are native to southern Africa, are then distracted and led away to the other side of their enclosure before being allowed to return to the buckets. Whichever of the receptacles then proves most popular with the mini-mongooses is deemed to be their winning pick.
The bucket system was used to correctly back England to beat Nigeria in the round of 16, then to eliminate Colombia in the quarterfinals before predicting they would send co-hosts Australia out in the final four.
“Our meerkats really love engaging and they’ve got really different personalities. They love interacting, getting involved,” Gemma Romanis, head keeper at Drusillas Park, told ESPN.
“It’s almost like a form of enrichment for them as well because they’re just so into everything and intrigued by normal everyday objects. They enjoy having food presented in different ways and doing things in new and exciting ways.”
The Drusillas meerkats have plenty of experience when it comes to forecasting results. Last year some of the group — including meerkats named Mario, Luigi and Yoshi — correctly tipped England to win at the Women’s European Championship. And even though a new generation of the clan is taking part in this year’s predictions, they are still calling them right. The pedigree runs deep.
“It’s same group, and some of the same individuals within the group, but the group is always expanding, always getting bigger,” Romanis said. “So we’ve got breeding males and females in there, so they’re obviously producing offspring sometimes twice a year, so the youngsters obviously have never experienced it before.
“So we’ve got our new baby, Reggie, who is only a couple of months old in there this year who’s never done any sort of predictions or anything before. This is his first time. But he’s getting involved and he follows the group and the group are teaching him what to do and how to do it and everything else. And it’s really, really good to see.”
On Friday, the clan was called into action one last time at this World Cup to predict the outcome of the final. The bookmakers can barely separate England and Spain in their betting odds, and that was reflected at Drusillas as the meerkats once again chose the Lionesses as the winners, but by the narrowest of margins.
“They actually weren’t as certain today, and there was a moment where there were equal meerkats in both buckets, but they had a team huddle and seemed to all land on England as the winner after all,” Romanis said. “Even after the food was all gone, it was a struggle to coax them back out of the bucket, so we think that means they are very sure!”
Of course, psychic animals have become something of a staple during major international football tournaments in recent years, with the Drusillas meerkats taking their place in the pantheon of farsighted fauna.
Perhaps the most famous exponent was Paul the Octopus, whose almost unwaveringly accurate match predictions at both the 2008 European Championship and the 2010 World Cup brought him worldwide acclaim. From his base at an aquarium in Oberhausen, Germany, Paul correctly called four of Germany’s six match results at the Euros, then all seven of Die Mannschaft‘s games at the subsequent World Cup, culminating in their third-place-playoff victory over Uruguay. He then correctly selected Spain to win the final before sadly passing away just three months later at the grand old age (for a common octopus) of 2 years and 8 months.
However, Paul wasn’t the first astral animal to hit the headlines for their World Cup predictions. Two years earlier, an African elephant by the name of Nelly quite literally kicked off an extraordinary sequence of prediction prowess that saw her go 30-for-33 with her picks at the 2006 Women’s World Cup, the 2010 World Cup and then Euro 2012 — simply by hoofing a large inflatable ball into one of two miniature goal nets.
Many have since followed in the footsteps left by Paul and Nelly, with Dirty Harry, the Australian saltwater crocodile, gaining fame at the 2010 World Cup for correctly foreseeing that Spain would win by beating Netherlands in the final.
Since then, fans have been witness to the fortune-telling feats of a variety of exotic creatures including cats, parakeets, cats, camels, koalas, polar bears and even a piranha by the name of Pelé, who predicted results at the 2014 World Cup by “kicking” a little plastic ball around his tank.
Marcus the mystic pig predicted England‘s results at the 2018 World Cup by eating apples marked with flags live on morning television. However, his run came to an end when the Three Lions were sent tumbling out by Croatia in the semis, despite being backed to win by the porcine prophet.
Fans were also subjected to a cuteness overload at the 2022 World Cup as Taiyo the Japanese otter found himself competing against a pair of pandas residing at a Qatari zoo for the duration of the tournament.
POST AUTHOR: Chris Wright