It is one of the curious anomalies of our game that when we close our eyes and think of a football we tend to think of a specific type of football and, moreover, that the type of football that we are likely to think of is a specific type of ball which hasn’t been widely used in major tournaments for over thirty years. To geometrists, it would be known as spherical polyhedron, but we would be more likely to know it as a 32-panel football, a Buckminster ball or a “bucky ball”, it made its international debut at the 1970 World Cup finals in Mexico, and it is a perfect example of the application of science to commercial design.
One of the more noticeable traits of the football itself is how difficult it is to design correctly. It needs to be neither too heavy nor too light and, more importantly, as near to perfectly round as possible. Until the late 1960s, the tradition football shape was the eighteen panel ball, which was made up of six blocks of three oblong strips of material. However, in the late 1960s, having signed a sponsorship deal with FIFA that still exists to this day, Adidas changed the design of the football itself and created something of a design classic – the Adidas Telstar.
The key name in this development is Richard Buckminster Fuller. Born in 1895 in Massachusetts, Buckminster Fuller was an architect, whose most famous design was the geodesic dome, which was based upon a design by the German engineer Walther Bauersfeld, whose first geodesic dome was built into the roof of the corporate headquarters of the Zeiss Coroporation in Jena, Germany and was the world’s first planetarium. Initially designed as he was looking for a way of constructing a building which used the absolute minimal of building materials, by using hexangonal and pentagonal panels, Buckminster Fuller could create a perfect sphere, and this proved to be a radical design for buildings. Amongst the many geodesic domes around the world are the Eden Project buildings in Cornwall and the Tacoma Dome in the United States of America.
The design proved to be particularly useful to Adidas when they were given the contract to produce the first official World Cup football in the late 1960s, although the first thirty-two panel football had been manufactured by the Danish company Select during the 1950s. By using twenty hexagonal and twelve panels, they could produce a perfectly spherical football. The pentagonal panels were coloured black for two reasons, firstly to allow players to be able to judge spin better – not an unimportant consideration in the thin air of Mexico, where the 1970 tournament was to be held – and secondly to be more easily visible on black and white television sets.
In this respect, Mexico 1970 was certainly a pioneering tournament. Although satellite technology had existed since 1962, the 1966 tournament was shown live in Europe only, and 1970 was the first World Cup tournament to be shown live in both Europe and the Americas. Although the images of that summer that we hold so dear are in colour, the majority of households still only had black and white television sets because of the fearsome cost of owning a colour television set. In 1974 in Britain, for example, a new colour television set cost £400 at a time that the average weekly wage was £38. The average wage now is £490 per week – the equivalent cost now would be £5150.
The ball was named the Adidas Telstar, for the communications satellite which had been the trailblazer in making football a global, televised powerhouse. Whether Adidas were aware that they had created a design classic remains elusive, but what we know for certain is that for what, at professional matches, what was a relatively short-lived design, the influence of the Telstar was massive. The ball was used again four years later in West Germany (along with the Chile Durlast, an all-white version of the Telstar which was named for the fact that Chile was the first tournament to use all-white balls), but by 1978 Adidas had ditched the design in favour of the altogether more futuristic-looking Tango.
They would stick, broadly speaking, with this design until 2002, for twenty-four years, three times as long as the Telstar did, but the Telstar design has claimed a place within the culture of the game which transcends the relatively short period of time that it was actually used. Even now, forty years after the 1970 World Cup finals, the Telstar design is still the definitive design what we would call the “generic” football. If you type “soccer ball” into Google’s Image Search (typing “football” in, of course, brings up gridiron balls), thirteen of the twenty images on the first page brings up footballs of a Telstar design – quite an achievement, considering that they have scarcely been seen for more than three decades.
Moreover, the success of the Telstar as our collective idea is even more perplexing in Britain, where a ball of such a design was only ever seen at the 1970 and 1974 World Cups, and occasional grainy footage of European matches. The Telstar design was never used in England for league or cup matches. Somehow, though, it has, as it has in the rest of the world, managed to embed itself into the public’s subconsciousness, which is all the more ironic considering the extent to which marketing in the early 1970s was so much more primitive than it is now. The design of the World Cup ball is still in the hands of Adidas, of course, and it changes considerably with every tournament. Perhaps that is now the point of it all, to create a disposable brand that is renewed wwith every tournament. Certainly, the idea of Adidas sticking with a ball design for more one tournament seems as alien as the adornishment-free cotton shirts worn by the Brazilians, Italians and the rest in 1970.
In the 1970s, however, it felt as if Adidas was getting these design matters right. One of the keys to successful iconic design is a mixture of art and science. The Adidas Telstar was the perfect balance of these two opposites – the science of the spherical polyhedron and the geodesic dome combined with a practical, almost minimalist design. It remains strangely futuristic, like a spinning alien globe, yet completely traditional, a timeless part of the football landscape that we all inhabit. It is a design classic, and even more than Jairzinho’s goals, Pele’s lob or Banks’ save, it is 1970 World Cup’s gift to football down the ages.