The Enduring Cultural Monopoly of the Adidas Telstar

by | Jan 27, 2021

The Danish goalkeeper Eigil Nielsen had a distinguished playing career. He played his club football for Copenhagen’s KB, and won 28 caps for the Danish national team, including a bronze medal at the 1948 Olympic Games. The Olympic medal, however, points the way towards how Nielsen would leave a mark on world football, in a sense so broad that it is almost surprising that he doesn’t seem to be be as recognised as he is.

As an amateur player, Nielsen earned his living in the leather industry, and combined the two in 1947 when he formed Select Sports, a company which allowed him to combine his interests with innovative football designs. In 1962 Select would unveil a new type of match ball which would come to change the aesthetic of the game forever: the 32-panel football. It was a principle which had been used in architecture for some time, most famously by R Buckminster Fuller, who became so closely associated with the geodesic dome designs that used the principle of twenty hexagonal panels and twelve pentagonal panels (in a spherical form), that chemistry paid its own tribute back to him shortly after his death in 1983 upon finding a new form of carbon which matched his design. This shape is geometrically known as a truncated icosahedron.

This arrangement was believed to give a truer sphere than the 18-panel ball that had used throughout the world for decades, and by the end of the decade Adidas had adopted it for what quickly became – and has remained – arguably the definitive¬†football. Adidas coloured the pentagonal panels in black, in order to make the ball more easily visible on black and white televisions, and named it the “Telstar”, sending it out It was first introduced for the 1968 European Championships, in Italy.¬†

The inspiration for its name was obvious. The Telstar 1 satellite had launched in on the 10th July 1962, three and a half weeks after that summer’s World Cup final in Santiago. In 1962, reels of film had to be flown back to London. By 1966, the final could be shown in the USA. The importance of the launching of Telstar 1 cannot be understated in understanding how the World Cup became a global game and financial power throughout the 1960s and 1970s. The satellite itself did resemble the Adidas design, but it wouldn’t be surprising to also find out that there was a nod to the importance of the strengthening of the bond between football and television in this design, as well.

The 1970 World Cup was, of course, the first to be shown around the world in colour, but this doesn’t mean that it was viewed in colour as well. In 1970, the vast majority of television sets in the world were black and white. In the UK, colour television was introduced in 1967, but colour television sales didn’t start to out-strip sales of black and white sets until 1976 (the first country in which this happened was the USA, in 1972). In 1978, Argentina built their colour TV infrastructure for that year’s World Cup finals. We’ve all seen the matches from the 1970 World Cup in colour, but only because colour devices are universal, these days.¬†

A conflation of events may have lodged the design of the Adidas Telstar. For some, it will have been the first time that they saw a World Cup in colour. For others – likely considerably more – it may have been the first time they’d seen a football tournament on the television at all. For most television viewers, it was the first time that they’d seen a tournament coming live from the other side of the world. And the 1970 World Cup finals didn’t let viewers down in terms of the quality of the football played, either.

Prior to 1970, the choice of ball to used for the World Cup finals was left to the hosts, and they went for a variety of yellows, browns and tans, although Sweden did experiment with a plain white one in 1958. As late as 1966, balls were being provided by Slazenger for the finals in three different colours – white, yellow and orange – with the orange ball used for the final looking every bit as though it may have been carved from an oak tree rather than stitched together with a needle and thread.

Four years later, changes were largely cosmetic. The Telstar was succeeded by the Telstar Durlast, which had a waterproof coating added to it which turned out to come in particularly useful in a finals frequently held in torrential rain. Adidas also offered a plain white option for this competition. Four years later in Argentina, however, it was gone, replaced by the space age looking Adidas Tango Durlast. Adidas would continue to a variation of this design until 2002, when it was replaced by the “champagne” coloured Adidas Fevernova.

For European supporters, the age of the Adidas Telstar was barely a decade long, although it did linger on in the club game into the 1980s in some countries. It was used for just three European Championships – all of which were four-team affairs – and two World Cups. The Tango almost three times as long. In the UK, it was seen even more rarely, very seldom for league matches and certainly never regularly by any of the bigger clubs, or for international matches or cup finals. Indeed, some clubs continued to use orange balls until into the 1970s.

The cultural hold of the Telstar, however, remains strong. A quick Google image search confirms this. And even now, almost four and a half decades after it was last seen in the wild – we’re not counting the Football Conference’s brief flirtation with this or the Telstar 18, as used at the last World Cup, here – it is the football that most people will reflexively think of, if you ask them to think of “a football.” It’s weird that this should be the case. It’s all the more the case in the UK, where the Telstar design was seldom, if ever, used for anything like high profile matches.

And what of Eigil Nielsen? Well, continued to innovate. In 1974, Select Sports designed the first match ball to be made using synthetic leather. The first synthetic ball to be used for the World Cup finals would be the Tango Azteca, twelve years later. Nielsen died in 2000 at the age of 82, but the company that he formed continues to supply the match balls to the Danish Superliga and the Danish national team, as well as the Jupiler Pro league in Belgium and the Primeira Division in Portugal. Not bad, for an amateur.