At the World Cup finals in South Africa next year, Adidas will celebrate forty years as the official supplier of match balls to the tournament. The company has become so intrinsically associated with the competition that it is almost impossible to imagine anybody else holding this position, but it is difficult to imagine that they will conjure anything up that is as simultaneously as modern looking and timeless as the Adidas Tango, a piece of design so flawless that it stayed in use for more than twenty years in various forms.

Until 1970, it was up to the hosting nation to supply the balls for the competition. In 1970, however, FIFA awarded a contract for the supply of match balls to Adidas, who came up with the Telstar. Named as a nod to the first communication satellites, it was a distinctive black and white pattern that was designed to be easier to see on the television (although they did also supply an all-white version). The same ball was used at the 1974 World Cup finals (albeit it with minor adjustments), but by 1978 the time was right for a completely new design of football – the Adidas Tango.

The Tango remained a thirty-two ball in the style of a “buckyball”, but with one notable difference. The ball had twenty geometric shapes called “Triads” printed upon it, with created ten large circles on its surface, which gave the impression that it was spinning when it was actually rolling. It looked like it had dropped from outer space. The Tango Durlast – the 1978 version of the ball – didn’t come without controversy. Goalkeepers complained that is was too light and moved too much in the air, and the tournament was dotted with goals scored from extravagantly long distances, including Nelinho’s angled, curling shot against Italy and Arie Haan’s goal for the Netherlands from even further out against the same opposition.

Four years later in Spain, the Tango España was used. This was the last leather ball to be used in the World Cup finals, and featured revolutionary waterproof sealed seams, which were said to reduce the ball’s water absorption rate. Of course whether it was necessary to do this for a tournament being in in Spain during the summer is another matter altogether, and these seams brought their own problems, with balls frequently having to be replaced during matches due to the seams wearing away through normal wear and tear. This design flaw was fixed in time for the 1984 European Championships.

Adidas being Adidas, of course, the simple geometric design couldn’t be left without tinkering. In 1986,the Azteca maintained the design but with an Aztec design to represent Mexico. In 1990, the Etrusco Unico featured a representation of Etruscan art whilst in 1994, the Questra was inspired by Inspired by “space technology and high velocity rockets”. The Tricolore, used in France in 1998, was the first ball to be used in the World Cup finals since 1966 not to be primarily black and white in design, using the red, white and blue of the French flag instead, and the Terrestra was the last public outing of the “Triad” design, used at the 2000 European Championships in the Netherlands and Belgium.

Since then, Adidas have rather lost their way. They will probably never again misjudge the market quite as much as they did with the “champagne” coloured Fevernova, which was used at the 2002 World Cup finals and dropped quietly afterwards, whilst the Teamgeist Germany was a surprisingly average looking, but did come in a rather startling gold colour for the final. There may be cause for quiet optimism for Tango enthusiasts in that Adidas went back to 1970 and the Telstar ball as the basis for the Europass ball, which was used at last year’s European Championships in Austria and Switzerland.

Such hopes, though, will probably be in vain. The likelihood is that Adidas will create something with a vague nod to African tribal history on it and then spray paint it gold for the final. The Tango, therefore, will remain part of the game’s history. However, considering the pace with which design moves within football, that the “Triad” design remained part of Adidas’ design culture for over twenty years is a testimony in itself to its durability. In an age in which we can access any aspect of the game in any part of the world, the Adidas Tango is a reminder of an age in which international football was more exotic and more romantic than it can ever be again.