07.12.14 4:00 AM ET
The Amazing Tale of Paul the Psychic Octopus: Germany’s World Cup Soothsayer
Sunday's World Cup final has the most astute soccer experts and eager bookies setting their odds on who will win. Die Mannschaft (German is such a beautiful language) is favored by many gamblers and football aficionados alike, thanks to the fact that Germany steamrolled Brazil in the semifinals on Tuesday; if the blitzkrieg could be translated to the pitch, it would look like their crushing 7-1 win over the hopeless host nation. But a German win Sunday is far from certain. Argentina has staved off the fiercest competition. It's at a time like this that Germans yearn most for Paul the Octopus, the great mollusk soothsayer for Germany.
At the 2010 World Cup, the German soccer team went on an impressive tear, and it was all successfully predicted—including its semifinal loss to eventual champion Spain—by Paul the Octopus. A Brit by birth, the eight-armed oracle was born in Weymouth, England, in 2008 at the Sea Life Centre. But, his psychic performance in the British Empire was about as underwhelming as England's in the World Cup. Fiona Smith, an employee from Paul's former Weymouth home, said, “He never made any predictions while he was living here but maybe he was waiting for a big event like the World Cup until he revealed his abilities.” Sure, it totally had nothing to do with England, Fiona.
His soothsaying abilities only became apparent when he was transferred to Sea Life Oberhuasen, an aquarium in Western Germany, later that year. His caretakers at Oberhausen tested Paul's psychic abilities during Euro 2008. At feeding time, Paul was presented with two different glass boxes—one bearing the German flag, the other the flag of the opponent—containing a mussel. “El Pulpo Paul” or “Paul le Poulpe,” as he has come to be known in European circles, then selected his mussel of choice, declaring his prediction for the match; he successfully divined the outcome of four out of Germany's six matches. Not too shabby for a creature less than a year old who had never set a tentacle on the pitch.
The aquarium also discovered Paul had an unusual affinity for unscrewing the lids off of jars, suggesting he had abnormally strong psychic and physical prowess for an octopus. The Germans knew they had a special sea creature in their Teutonic grip.
Two years later when the 2010 World Cup began, Paul's caretakers were determined to see if his predictive power would match his 2008 record. And oh, did it ever. There was a one in 256 chance that Paul would correctly divine the outcome of each German match, and he did just that—including their quarterfinal victory over Argentina. In total, he went 8-0 in his predictions, even picking Spain over the Netherlands in the World Cup final. And with each prediction, Paul amassed an array of perplexed admirers throughout Europe, eager to see what the psychic octopus would choose before each match.
Sure, there were the occasional naysayers. Volker Miske, Germany's leading octopus researcher, wondered if Paul was skewed by different sized mussels or potential residue mussel flavors on the outside of the box, but most of World Cup fandom wholly believed in his genuine predictive powers. No longer did Knut reign as the most popular German non-human, for when German television station NTV started live-broadcasting Paul's predictions, he became a social media phenomenon (“Paul the Octopus” trended on Twitter), and a song remarkably similar to Bye Bye Birdie's “We love you, Conrad” was written in tribute to him. Paul was outshining Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney. And he ultimately outshone Germany.
When it came to Germany's semifinal match against Spain, Paul sent shudders through a nation when he selected his mussel from the glass box favoring the Iberian nation. This wasn't the first time he had predicted a German loss during the World Cup. He had, against the odds, successfully foretold their loss to the much weaker Serbia in the first round of play. As with his Serbian prediction, Paul was absolutely correct when it came to Spain: Germany lost, 1-0.
This is a good place to note that when Paul first earned German acclaim during the Euro 2008 tournament, his only two misses were when he incorrectly predicted Germany would win against Croatia and Spain. The Germans weren't used to the psychic octopus foretelling their downfall; Paul's correct prediction of a Spanish win was a blow to the national ego.
In typical German fashion, Paul managed to lose his countrymen's affection rather suddenly once he forecast an unfavorable outcome. The nation that once revered him threatened to chop him up and fry him into calamari. Death threats abounded. The Berliner Kurier said "Throw him in the frying pan," and Germans flooded Facebook and Twitter with their plans to cook and kill their once-beloved oracle octopus. Meanwhile, Spain's Industry Minister, Miguel Sebastian, offered an “immediate” free transfer for Paul to “ensure his protection” (if only the Spaniards had been so gallant during World War II).
Sadly, Paul the Octopus did not outlive his impressive but unpopular World Cup predictions by long. He was found dead in his tank just a few months later, on October 26, 2010. He had lived an average-sized life for an octopus, but the impact of his death was felt throughout Europe, even—and especially—in Germany. The country that once sought to slaughter Paul was devastated by his demise. Der Spiegel ran a lengthy and loving obituary to him. The Oberhausen aquarium erected a memorial of the psychic octopus with a golden urn containing his ashes.
And his absence is certainly felt at the current World Cup, especially as Germany is on the cusp of a championship. Since Paul's inimitable 2010 World Cup performances, several other zoos and aquariums have put forward their own allegedly psychic animals, including a Brazilian sea turtle, a Thai hedgehog, a Japanese otter, and, most famously, Shaheen, a camel in Dubai. Shaheen's record is about 66 percent—respectable, but it's no Paul. The “clairvoyant camel” has picked Argentina over Germany in the World Cup final. We'll see if Shaheen proves correct on Sunday, or if the Germans can get a win for Paul, the OG prophet.