Design Classics: The Adidas Tango

by | Sep 30, 2017

With the start of another football season comes another rash of new ball designs by various sporting manufacturers. Adhering to the apparent viewpoint that all publicity actually is good publicity, Nike have elected this season to go for a rather unlovely design called the Ordem V, which they have wrapped in different colours for La Liga, Serie A and the Premier League, with La Liga’s being in orange and yellow, Serie A’s in orange and purple, and the Premier League’s being at least an improvement upon last season’s quite monumentally dreadful luminous yellow, blue, purple and white, although it does still look as though it belongs in the window of a shop on a beach somewhere in rural England alongside tins of fudge and plastic bucket and spade sets.

Such is the underhanded nature of public relations that we’ll probably never get a truthful angle on the real reason why footballs weren’t to be acceptable in white any more. If the trend began anywhere in earnest in the modern era, it probably began with the Adidas Fevernova, the ball used at the 2002 World Cup finals, which was described as being “champagne” coloured. Two years later, UEFA followed suit with a silver ball for the European Championships, and from then on all bets have been off. However, it was the Football League in England that introduced yellow balls in the winter, with manufacturers Mitre making the somewhat dubious-sounding claim that, “the fluorescent colour gave players a three-millisecond advantage in spotting the ball during a match and was useful on muddier grounds”. The Premier League followed suit in November 2004.

Manufacturer claims that their newly-coloured baubles are more visible may have a grain of truth in them, but they are almost certainly over-exaggerated. If we presume that they are, such claims are buried deep in the history of the game. Footballs were, broadly speaking, brown until the 1960s, despite occasional experiments to improve visibility such as those carried out by Herbert Chapman in Arsenal at the end of the 1920s, which consisted of dipping balls in buckets of whitewash every time they went out of play. A combination of the introduction of floodlit football and the growth of televised football meant that white footballs were well established by the end of the 1960s.

It took the creation of the now legendary Adidas Telstar for the 1970 World Cup finals to bring ball design into the 1970s. A design so distinctive that it remains the blueprint for what “a football” looks like more than three decades after it fell from favour completely, the Telstar was designed with its black and white panels to stand out more readily on black and white television sets. It was used again in 1974, but by 1978 something new was required. Something that represented football’s transition towards the age of the microchip, something that represented… modernity.

The Adidas Tango Durlast was the result. According to the marketing guff that accompanied its release, the Tango’s design of twenty panels with “triads” which created an optical impression of twelve identical circles was meant to serve as a representation of “elegance, dynamism and passion”, but what the rest of us saw for the first time at the 1978 World Cup finals was a living, moving geometric game, a ball that sometimes gave the impression of being in motion when it wasn’t, of spinning when it was bouncing. It was a smooth, modern design, simultaneously completely of its time and a look that hasn’t particularly dated over the course of the last thirty-eight years.

The rush towards modernity continued apace, and four years later – with the same design having been used for the 1980 European Championships, for which it was confirmed that the company would be designing a bespoke version of the Tango for each tournament from then on – the same design was in use for the next World Cup in Spain. This version, the Tango Espana, was the last leather football to be used in the World Cup finals. It didn’t come without problems, though. The Espana came with rubber lining, which was supposed to give it water-resistant properties but only actually ended up wearing away after a very short period of times, meaning that balls frequently had to be replaced during matches.

This was the last Adidas Tango to carry the name for many years, but the triads and circles design proved to have an incredibly long shelf-life. For each new tournament Adidas came out with a new ball with a new design, from the historic runes look of the Azteca Mexico for the 1986 World Cup finals to the silver and army blue design of the Adidas Terrestra Silverstream, which was used for Euro 2000. This, however, proved to be the end of the line for this particular look, with the Fevernova changing the direction of Adidas’s design permanently in 2002. Well, almost permanently. The design was revived with the Tango 12 for Euro 2012, but the dimensions of the triads were considerably different to previous Tango balls, and the look didn’t hang around, this time.

It was probably always inevitable that it would end up this way. Marketing trumps all other considerations in modern sport – especially aesthetic ones – and the pace at which all parts of the periphery of the game which can be redesigned are redesigned means that there is little time for any design to embed itself in the popular consciousness. The basic design of the Adidas Tango was used for six World Cups as well the European Championships, the European Cup final, the Olympic Games and other tournaments besides. Its arrival in 1978 marked the beginning of a new era in the aesthetic design of football equipment, a game-changer at a time when the game was crying out for a new look.