In 1970, a football legend was born. Inspired by a NASA satellite and motivated by a global television audience, Adidas created an iconic match ball that would leave a lasting legacy.
> EPISODE TRANSCRIPT
JAMES: I'm James Parkinson and this is By Association, a show about football and the human connection behind the beautiful game.
ANDY: On a personal level it was quite an interesting time for me because, you know, I had a media spotlight shone in a way that I’d not experienced before.
JAMES: This is Andy.
ANDY: You know, I had various threats made to me. I did receive a random death threat, via email.
James: A death threat?
ANDY: Yeah, I received a death threat and didn’t think anything much of it, deleted the email and never thought about it, until a few years later [laughs].
ANDY: I had the media turning up at my home address to challenge me and so on.
ANDY: Oh for sure. Yeah, yeah - my mobile phone went, and it was my wife. And she said, “I’ve got journalists camped outside the house”, you know, “what do we do?”. But yeah, I mean, you know, in fairness it did die down. I think after a period of time the journalists genuinely believed that I wasn't there and they did leave without causing any difficulties. But I guess as an academic, you know, it's not what you usually expect.
ANDY: You know, one thing I learned, I suppose, is that the World Cup matters to people…
ANDY: ...you know, and matters a lot to some people.
JAMES: In December 2009, FIFA unveiled the official match ball for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa - the Adidas Jabulani.
JAMES: Over the following months, as teams got hold of the new ball to train with, complaints about its characteristics began to surface from the players. Spain’s Iker Casillas called it a “beach ball”. Italy’s Gianluigi Buffon claimed it was “absolutely inadequate”. While England’s David James labled it “dreadful”. And yes, those particular players were all goalkeepers, but to be fair, some forwards had their grievances too.
JAMES: But the point is, the new ball stirred up a lot of controversy, and it was one of the biggest talking points in the media before and during the 2010 tournament. It was this controversy that led to reporters turning up at Andy’s home.
ANDY: I’m Andy Harland, Professor of Sports Technology at Loughborough University and I’m the Director of the Sports Technology Insitute.
JAMES: Andy and his team at Loughborough Univeristy have had an ongoing partnership with Adidas since 2002. They worked on prototypes of the Jabulani and Andy was sent to South Africa during the World Cup to be involved in media events for Adidas. But he wasn’t responsible for the design of the ball or the numerous issues players had with its supposed unpredictability in the air.
ANDY: Perhaps it was something about the UK media at that time. You know, many parts of the media didn't necessarily understand the relationship between ourselves as a research partner and Adidas as a contracted ball provider to the tournament, so there was one or two that perhaps didn't understand and maybe maybe were looking for headlines and decided that, you know, my involvement in it was the problem, and decided to let me know that.
JAMES: When Andy is working on prototypes, this is usually three to four years out from a World Cup tournament, so there’s quite a bit of distance between the research and testing he and his team undertakes, and the final product manufactured by Adidas, that’s actually used on the pitch.
ANDY: Really, what we got involved in from an early stage was the question of “if we're going to change the materials, if we're going to change the design, how on earth will we know that it's still going to be acceptable as a product to the players?”
ANDY: And so from that point, we undertook a number of research projects. Whilst these are very much Adidas products, and Adidas take full credit for the design and, you know, production of these balls, some of the questions that they needed to answer, in terms of “how do we make this?”, “how do we optimise that?”, you know we're answered by research that we partnered with them.
ANDY: And in 2010, there was a desire to reduce the number of panels on the ball, for various reasons. And what we were able to understand was that aerodynamically, that would sort of change or had potential to change the way the ball flew through the air. So, what was conceived for that ball was a series of, effectively artificial panel edges, grooves, within within the panels that could be engineered to stabilise the flight. And so that was really the work that we did on that ball.
JAMES: This wasn’t the first time an offical match ball had been contentious either, but all of this goes to show the influence the design of the ball has on the sport - and that’s been the case right throughout its history.
JAMES: The idea of an official match ball at major tournaments has become common place these days, but that wasn’t always the norm. The very first FIFA World Cup in 1930 didn’t have one. The two Finalists - Uruguay and Argentina actually turned up to the match, each with a ball of their own. The referee declared that a different ball would be used in each half.
JAMES: Earlier balls were made of animal bladders, rubber and leather, and they had laces on the outside. They were heavy - especially in wet weather - and they’d wear out quicky. But as it always does, technology eventually improved.
JAMES: The disagreement over which ball to use in 1930 led FIFA to standardising the match ball for every tournament that followed. But it was the 1970 World Cup where the football took its first big leap into the future.
JAMES: Picture in your mind for a moment, a football - or soccer ball, if you like - chances are, you’re visualising a 32-panel sphere, consisting of 20 white hexagons and 12 black pentagons. It’s the classic soccer ball, known as the Telstar, produced by Adidas as the official match ball of the 1970 FIFA World Cup.
ANDREW: The 1970 World Cup in Mexico was really the start, for me, of the truly visual element of the World Cup. That classic design with the black pentagon's on a white background, and that's what we think of as a football even today.
JAMES: This is football journalist, Andrew Flint.
ANDREW: You know, you think of the heavy laced balls, the only part of a design that stands out is the laces themselves - I’m thinking from the 1940s, 1950s - but I think the Telstar’s design, because of the way the panels are the same size and they fit together, I think it was a more logical but simple construction that works really well.
JAMES: But the Telstar actually wasn’t the first ball to use the 32-panel construction.
JAMES: In 1962 the Select Sport company produced the first-ever 32-panel football, invented by Eigil Nielsen. Nielsen was a Danish footballer. He represented the Danish national team 28 times, and throughout his amateur career, he also worked in the shoe and leather industry. This lead to him founding his company Select in 1947.
JAMES: In his playing days, Eigil Nielsen was a goalkeeper, so he was intimatley aware of the flight trajectory of the ball. Combining his skills with leather, he was obsessed with creating the perfect football.
JAMES: The ball’s of the time, the one’s with the lacing on the outiside, typically had 18 rectangular panels, not unlike a modern volley ball. But they were far from perfect. In 1951, Eigil Nielsen created the first laceless football, before developing the revolutionary 32-panel design eleven years later.
JAMES: While Adidas didn’t invent the 32-panel construction, the Telstar put it on the world stage. Eigil Nielsen’s ball was a solid mustard brown colour. Other match ball’s of the period were also a single colour - like Slazenger’s reddish-orange Challenge 4-star, used at the 1966 World Cup.
JAMES: But the unique white and black pattern is what made the Telstar so influential, and the motivation behind its design was television. At the time, the world was slowly transitioning to colour television, but many households still owned black and white TVs. So the Telstar’s colour scheme made it clearer, for both sets of viewers. Here’s Andrew again.
ANDREW: The clarity of broadcast was never really good enough to pick up anything more than just simply that outline of the ball, the round shape. But now people could see more clearly, and I'm talking really from the TV point of view here. It wasn't over complicated, but it was recognisable. The way the ball span, and the black elements of the ball sort of connected together as the ball span. It just even added an element of drama to the curve and the spin on the ball. Ironic that it's a black and white object that becomes so emblematic during the advent of color broadcasting. But I think that was why it was so popular because there was suddenly this explosion of color on the screen.
JAMES: The Telstar was developed in France and was named after the Telstar communication satellite, launched by NASA in 1962.
JAMES: The satellite was white, roughly spherical in shape and had a number of black square solar panels on its surface. Given the role TV played in beaming the World Cup around the globe, the name is quite fitting - “Telstar” being a portmanteau of “television and “star”.
JAMES: Eigil Nielsen’s 32-panel design was so influential that Adidas retained it for every World Cup ball that followed, up to 2002’s Fevernova - my personal favourite, by the way. It was also adopted by other ball manufacturers and became the standard football design, still used today - including by Select Sport who continue to honour Nielsen’s legacy, following his death in 2000 at the age of 81.
JAMES: While the Telstar’s distinct black and white pattern was only used once more, for the 1974 World Cup, it left a lasting imprint on the world game. These days the Telstar design is everywhere; from stock photos and emoji to team badges and google image searches. There’s a reason it’s on the artwork for this podcast. It’s become the most recognisable and default representation of the football.
ANDREW: When we talk about the design of the Telstar, it is the most iconic ball design. And I don’t think it’s possible to really, recreate something quite as simple but emblematic as that. Keeping it simple, but strong and bold, was just the genius of the design for me.
JAMES: Over the years, various designs have come and gone and ball technology continues to evolve. Adidas have haven’t used the 32-panel construction for a World Cup ball since their first deviation from it in 2006. But ask anyone to draw you a picture of a soccer ball, and you can bet it’s the Telstar that ends up on the page.
JAMES: Many thanks to Andy Harland and Andrew Flint.
JAMES: Many thanks to Andy Harland and Andrew Flint. By Association is produced by me, James Parkinson. The theme song is composed by Nic Buchannan, with other music in this episode from Blue Dot Sessions. And artwork is by Andrew Weber, with illustration from Moonshine Madness.
JAMES: This is the last episode for Season 2, so if you’ve enjoyed this series, please leave a review on Apple Podcasts, and tell a friend about the show.
JAMES: You can also follow along on Twitter and Instagram @ byassociationfc, and stay up to date through the newsletter. You’ll find that and more at the website, byassociation.audio. Thanks for listening.