What a load of old cock from Rubber Knob, a troll who shafted gorgeous 13-year-old Romeo Beckham recently for the crime of being a mascot at a soccer international. Too privileged, he said. The gig should have gone to a “poor little lad with leukaemia” instead of a son of the game’s superstar elder statesman David.

A bunch of like-minded knockers quickly joined this Knob. Piling into a gang-bang, they claimed Romeo was “too old” to be a mascot and “didn’t deserve” the role; he had only been allowed to step out onto the hallowed Wembley Stadium turf with England captain Wayne Rooney because his dad had pulled strings. Why couldn’t it have been a ragged street urchin instead, or an orphaned maiden, plucked from plying her humble trade as an under-age sex slave?

I exaggerate slightly, but that was the tone, with the implication that the point of having mascots is to give the lowly and the unfortunate a brief respite from their unfêted fate, letting them bask in the limelight for once. As such, this would in itself be a decent gesture; I don’t knock the sentiment.

But it is not what mascots have traditionally been about. The knockers’ revisionist ideas are a revealing sign of the times, as I will aim to show.

Taking tradition first, the word mascot itself goes back a long way. From the French word “mascotte”, it means a talisman, or charm, and is derived from the word “masco”, a sorceress, and “mascoto”, a “spell”. It was used to describe anything that brought luck to a household. The word was first popularized in 1880, when French composer Edmond Audran wrote a comic operetta titled La Mascotte. Since then, mascots have come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, but the tendency seems to have been away from the portable amulets and talismans that have been carried and worn for luck and protection since ancient times, towards more animated and larger forms.

A famous one is the regimental goat. We are told the tradition of goats in the military originated in 1775, when a wild goat walked onto the battlefield in Boston during the American Revolutionary War and led the Welsh regimental colours at the end of the Battle of Bunker Hill.

Sports clubs also started to use animals as mascots – real, live, ones were brought along to the games. Most of them were predators, expected to roar and strike fear into the hearts of their opponents. These days it tends to be a human dressed up as an inspirationally fierce animal, such as a wolf or a tiger. There is also a whole menagerie of less threatening, family-friendly, creatures, such chickens or badgers, or more or less any Disneyfied animal.

There is even an inflatable boy, but don’t get too excited. He is not quite what you may be thinking: we are still in “family-friendly” territory here!

What many of these weird and wonderful critters have in common, from goat to boy, is an element of humour. The regimental goat tends to be given an official rank and decorated with campaign medals, none of which can be taken seriously. The boy is enormous, bigger than any adult, which is a comical travesty.

Why then, did real children – initially just boys – become mascots? They may often make us laugh, but there is nothing intrinsically funny about their appearance. Their behaviour may be on the wild side, but no way is a little kid symbolically fearsome, like a lion or a bear.

My guess, and at present I see no evidence that could take me beyond speculation, is that a boy was seen as emblematic: he was a visible embodiment of the future of the sport, and of the club whose colours he wore. Yes, like any mascot he was there to bring good luck. But his power to do so sprang from the joy and optimism generated simply by his appealing presence. It is a magical sort of power, to be sure; but, unlike earlier tokens of luck and protection, it needs no magician or sorceress to cast spells and invest the mascot with the necessary magic. It is just there.

Now, if I am right about the child mascot’s original role, the one crucial requirement of any particular boy mascot is that he should be plausibly emblematic. He must look the part. It must seem as though, one day, he could well be playing for the team, leading it to victory. So he must be lean, well-proportioned, athletic and good-looking, with every suggestion he has been favoured by the gods. He would do well, for instance, to look like Romeo Beckham! Or perhaps a younger boy quite like him – his 10-year-old brother Cruz, perhaps!

But not his little sister, four-year-old Harper. Nothing wrong with her appearance, but on the reasoning just outlined she would only make a good mascot for a women’s team. And as for older brother Brooklyn, 16, he is way too old: if he is going to make his mark on the football field, he will need to be a player, not a mascot. Maybe he will.

The same iron logic means no children dying of leukaemia as mascots; none in wheelchairs either, and definitely no plague victim, by which I mean the grotesque plague of corpulence that threatens to crush the planet to the size of a football under the weight of its fat kids – its ugly fat kids, I should add. They are not a pretty sight.

No, the mascot should be a perfect specimen of the master race. Oops! Sorry, getting a bit carried away here with a perhaps suspiciously Nazi-sounding philosophy of perfection. The idea of fiercely competitive, all-conquering youth leading the way to a glorious future does rather invoke the world of Tomorrow belongs to me! and a policy of exterminating burdensome weaklings – the physically and mentally handicapped, the “degenerate” sexual minorities – along with “inferior” races.

While that extreme is devoutly to be shunned, I do find myself wondering whether we might now be drifting towards an unsustainable opposite extreme, in which the laudable goal of social inclusion (a kind philosophy, to all except kind people like us, of course) is becoming too indulgent and unselfcritical. The now very common inclusion of often seriously overweight kids as mascots is a good example. The social inclusion theme was a marvellous feature of the hugely successful 2012 London Olympics, which showed that caring about all sorts of minorities, including the “differently abled” paralympians, need not be at odds with an environment fundamentally grounded in competition and achievement. The idea is good. But it does have limits. Fats kids do not get to be footballers – and the market for sumo wrestlers is somewhat limited.

Not that mascot culture is being driven entirely by a thought-through vision of social inclusion. Professional sport is a commercial concern. In recent times, especially, although perhaps longer in the U.S. than in most places, clubs have been focusing with fiendish cunning on how to extract every last dollar and dime from the fans. Stadium ticket prices have rocketed along with TV-generated interest and greater discretionary spending power for the well-to-do: going to a soccer match, traditionally a pastime for working class men of often very modest earnings, is now increasingly just for affluent families who can afford kits for the kids in the club’s colours at outrageous prices – colours and designs, furthermore, that are frequently changed, necessitating further purchases.

Nor has the mascot escaped this monetary molestation. Whereas in the old days there was just one mascot for each game, there are now up to 22, each assigned to one of the players on either side. Any here’s the really clever bit: the clubs have done their marketing so brilliantly that parents will now pay, often handsomely (up to £600 at some Premierships clubs), for the privilege of having their kid groomed by a complete stranger! How can it fail to be a grooming opportunity, at least, when the player is actually required to hold the hand of a hero-worshipping child, and the couple have nothing whatever to do except exchange sweet nothings with each other while waiting in the tunnel – the Tunnel of Love, as it were!

Not that you would guess it from seeing the players when the TV cameras are on them. Embarrassment is all but universal. The guys tend to look anywhere but at the mascots, either the one assigned to them of anyone else’s: a scuff mark on the tunnel wall suddenly becomes engrossing. An uneasy silence reigns. The last thing they want is to look like someone who would enjoy being with children. Hell no: a respectable man hates kids!

I said above that I could only speculate on the original reason for children being introduced as mascots. This is because, unlike almost any other aspect of sports culture imaginable, there is a dearth of online information. There must be a zillion websites going into arcane detail about club colours, badges and other such paraphernalia; there is even an American Mascot Hall of Fame, but it is devoted to comical cartoon-type mascots, not child ones. As with the players in the tunnel looking away, I suspect the subject is just too embarrassing for anyone to research. The clubs themselves give marketing information about their mascot packages: the price, what is included the deal, such as a tour of the stadium and so forth. But the ones I have seen pay no attention whatever to the rationale for child mascots and the history of the idea. If anyone knows of a club site that does this, do tell.

One might have supposed there would be some academic research out there somewhere. The child mascot is beyond question of sociological interest. But even Google is stumped on this one. All I could turn up was a mascot function for children in dysfunctional families. The search button at the Museum of Childhood in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum also draws a blank: page after page shows colourful illustrations of cuddly toy mascots for children, but nothing on children as mascots, a tradition that appears to have emerged at some point in the late 19th or early 20th century burgeoning of organised sport, with its well established clubs and substantial fan base.

But the first child mascot may have been long before. The ideal of beautifully perfect, perfectly beautiful, athletic youth was inspirational in Ancient Greece around two and a half thousand years ago, and perhaps a fair bit longer, going back to before the first Olympic Games in 776 BC.

It depends what you a call a “child” though. At 13, is young Romeo Beckham a child or a youth? The Greeks – and indeed the Nazis, who were consciously inspired by them – fetishised youth rather than childhood. And, unless we count the mischievous god Eros as a sort of mascot (stretching it a bit, I think), the first true child mascot I can think of was Roman, not Greek.

He was a little boy, barely more than a toddler when he became a much loved mascot. Like Romeo Beckham, he was the son of a superstar. This was Germanicus, a general, lauded in his day as the greatest military leader since Alexander. Brought up among his father’s troops, the lad wore a tiny uniform just like the ordinary soldiers – and they adored the kid! They even gave him a nickname that stuck longer than anyone would have imagined, a name based on a particular item of his “replica team kit”: his boots. They called him Little Boots. Or, as they said in their Latin, Caligula!

Caligula went on, of course, to become somewhat less popular as an emperor. One can only hope that young Romeo finds a better way of being a retired mascot. Fortunately, unlike child film stars, ex-mascots do not appear to go spectacularly wrong very often!