JP Pelosi investigates how handshakes and martinis impact international soccer.
Like every iPhone iteration, or new edition of Madden, soccer ball designers continue tinkering with something that already works. In fact, they’ve been affecting the game for more than 40 years, and nobody ever asks, Why?
When it was announced that the 1994 Soccer World Cup would be staged in the United States, the sport’s international governing body FIFA not only stunned more likely hosts Brazil, but provided the impetus for perpetual and unwarranted change. FIFA worried that the tournament would under
helm a restless American public groomed on the blitzkrieg of the NFL, and aerial exploits of the NBA’s human F-18s. Their fear was due in part to the previous World Cup played in the home of defensive soccer, Italy, which had soured the global soccer palate with laborious, antagonistic, score-starved contests. Fans were disenchanted and FIFA sought a remedy before unleashing its marquee product on potentially the largest audience it had ever seen.
Like The Wolf in Pulp Fiction, Adidas was called in to clean up. After all, it had provided match balls for all the big tournaments since the seventies, and there was hope its “innovation team” could somehow help facilitate more goals. Forget star players and dynamic attacking strategies, they urged. It’s the ball that matters! And so the company’s brainstorm ahead of America’s only World Cup was a seminal moment that would transform the international game forever. The ball, if you unequivocally believe press releases, would become rounder.
While Adidas’ pursuit of the perfect sphere began simply to restrict water logging, it’s quite literally taken the Size 5 and run with it, especially since FIFA’s blessing in 1970. Its innovation geeks have acquitted themselves vigorously to the task, and their employers have had little reason for an alternative. But under a certain light, the FIFA-Adidas partnership—going on its fifth decade officially—looks cosier than a Kim and Kanye date night. Yes, the early collaborations are considered benchmarks by players and coaches alike. But when the entirely synthetic “Azteca” landed in 1986, something changed: technological advancement supplanted common sense. Italy’s lackluster tourney four years later was the final stitch, so to speak.
Supposedly 90 manufacturers are registered FIFA licensees, but blue-chip brands like Adidas, Nike, Umbro, and Puma are the dominant players in ball design, with Adidas headlining that group. Its soccer ball expertise swelled under founder, Adolf Dassler, who oversaw production of the iconic “Telstar” in 1963. This black and white pentagon-on-hexagon model quickly became synonymous with the sport, while also bringing clarity to fans at home in front of colorless screens. Goals were up, and TV ratings soared. Adidas was destined to design World Cup balls forevermore. Adolf’s son, Horst, assumed control after his father’s passing in 1978, and subsequently hatched the licensing and marketing firm International Sports and Leisure (ISL). According to Barbara Smit in her account of Adidas’ multigenerational family feud, Sneaker Wars, Horst was a supremely ambitious man, unwilling to wait his turn as the boss. He had a somewhat Machiavellian view of the world where sports and marketing were collusive. As Joe Nocera of The New York Times wrote of in 2008, “Horst turned his corner of the company into a kind of secret empire that acted against the express wishes of his parents. He started shadow companies to hide certain product lines from them. He befriended all the top officials in sports, including those in charge of the Olympics.”
Horst died in 1987 due to illness, but his business partnerships of the seventies and early eighties are still relevant today, and more importantly, to the story of the international soccer ball. The Daily Mail in London reported in 2011 that “black money” was paid to several top sporting officials globally to ensure preference between ISL and major sports events such as the Olympics. According to the paper, ISL, which collapsed under the strain of colossal debt in 2001, arranged the elections of officials close to Horst to senior and influential positions in world sport. For example, Horst placed Italian sports executive Primo Nebiolo in charge of the International Amateur Athletic Federation in 1981, and ISL won that marketing contract for the next 20 years. Nebiolo was incidentally president of the Association of Summer Olympic International Federations in 1983, and a member of the International Olympic Committee in 1992. The man known as the Godfather of world athletics is also said to have influenced the 2006 Winter Olympics bid for his home city Turin.
Most deals with the likes of Nebiolo were agreed in private, The Mail reported, with no transparent, competitive tendering. But Adidas never down plays its relationship with FIFA, telling The Associated Press in 2011 that it enjoys a long-term alliance with the organization as both a sponsor and supplier for their events at all levels of the game. So as you might expect, FIFA and Adidas extended their agreement several years back with a $351 million deal gifting the brand the official partnership, suppliership and licensing rights for the FIFA World Cup in 2010, and again in 2014. Of course corporate handshakes and dry martinis fuel major sports deals in every crevice of every five-star lounge on the planet. But while tracksuits and digital signage don’t matter much to fans, the caliber of play certainly does. It used to be that good players determined this. Not marketeers. Not scientists.
Before Charles Goodyear invented vulcanized rubber, soccer balls were lined with pig bladders. Their movement was unpredictable, and varied depending on the irregularity of the bladder’s shape. In some ways, this was as pure as soccer ever was—a game determined simply by one’s ability to conquer an imperfect leather sphere with the feet. But purity mostly vanished when Mick Jagger first strutted across the stage: The Rolling Stones released their own change of pace in 1966 with Paint it Black, while British manufacturer, Slazenger, launched its first World Cup ball, which they’d earned the right to do by winning an anonymous contest. It was an unimposing orange lump that looked more like a volleyball than a soccer ball, boasting 24 panels, and no synthetics. The theory was that the more pieces you divide the ball into, the less chance the leather has of warping. If you’ve ever seen a grainy highlight reel from the ’66 tournament, you will have noted the ball travels like moss-covered stone—some might say, as a soccer ball was meant to. The fact it was leather, but also consisted of so many segments, should at least prompt an inquiry in Her Majesty’s Realm which celebrated their one and only World Cup victory that year. Germany, home of the company touting the minimal panel product, was coincidentally the loser of that match.
The English must have loathed Adidas’s “Questra” ball because they didn’t even qualify in ‘94. With its blend of five synthetic materials and polystyrene foam shell, 14-panel exterior down from 32, and triad imprint for historical distinction, the Questra swooped into the Pontiac Silverdome on June 18, 1994, to the applause of 73,425 fans. Okay, so they were more likely cheering the entrance of Team USA and its opposition, Switzerland, not the so-called anatomically correct ball they would pulverize for the next 90 minutes. But the Questra did move faster and was more responsive, and therefore proved easier for strikers to steer beyond goalies. I submit Eric Wynalda’s bowing 30-yarder for the U.S. as evidence. That day delivered a 1-1 draw, though ensuing contests saw multiple two, three, four, and five goal games. Mission accomplished, maybe, depending on whether you’re a TV powerbroker, a soccer die-hard, or an eager-to-impress draftsman in the bowels of Three-Stripe HQ. In short, that ball’s wonderfully curved panels and water-tight joints reignited the movement to “out-round” the roundest. It’s the same recurring dissatisfaction that surely plagues Pamela Anderson and Heidi Montag.
Designing sports equipment for global events writes reviews a brand might not otherwise receive—so there’s no need to exaggerate the privilege. If, say, the International Tennis Federation asked Nerf to create foam tennis balls for the upcoming Wimbledon competition, how would it benefit the sport, or Nerf, other than with a dubious PR moment? The standard of play would sink, and the audience would be forced to disconnect from what it knows of the game to embrace the new exaggerated style. You might as well put Federer and Nadal on pogo sticks. Even when commercial ambition trumps artistry there’s hope that the likes of Adidas or Nike or Whoever, will channel their creative juices into logos and colorful imprints, instead of rethinking an item’s actual physicality. Nike, for example, makes the English Premier League ball, but if it has designs to influence game play, it’s less apparent. The EPL rockets along because English soccer thrives on offensive set-ups with multiple strikers and wing-play. Unfortunately others are more focused on the ball’s ability to perpetuate reputation…and sales.
In the current European Championships, Adidas has brought back the “Tango”, a popular ball from the 1978 World Cup. It’s not the Carter-era Tango though—this version has spun its way through two years of machine tests and compression chambers as part of the FIFA Quality Concept for Footballs program, before rubbing up against the grass. There’s no other choice in the era of hyper-engineering, you see. Then, the London Olympics will see the debut of another ball, the “Albert”, affectionately named after the city’s venerable Albert Hall where Hendrix and Zeppelin and Clapton once belted through sets without interference, at least of the non-amplified variety. The moniker was conjured after a ball-naming competition invited the public to christen the shiny newborn in early 2011, which saw 12,000 unique names submitted in just 10 days.
Adidas needs a winner with Albert after being royally shafted for their last effort at the 2010 World Cup, the infamous “Jubalani”. That unblemished number—renowned for dipping on unsuspecting goalkeepers—was “thermally bonded” together with just eight panels, six fewer than the Questra, and 24 fewer than the traditional 32. (I have it on good authority they did the same thing with Scarlett Johansson’s latex Black Widow costume in The Avengers: less interruption to the natural line of the curve, or something.) Such was the criticism of the last ball that scientists around the world later tested it, presumably by whipping Beckham-style crosses at each other while wearing white lab coats, and concluded its fewer panels, internal stitching and ultra-light weight produced a puzzling result.
Watching the game today, we love to see professional dribblers work with the ball, control it and embrace its nuances. You only need study Lionel Messi or Arjen Robben to appreciate how a soccer ball can move—its size, weight and texture, each contributing to the beauty of its roll. Soccer, for all its pensive moments, relies on an imperfect roll to will its magic. Sterile factory-produced balls generally don’t turn the way a soccer ball should, but instead, undermine the art form’s best technicians, and reduce the “beautiful game” to a game of chance. Certainly goalies struggle most when a ball sinks and wavers toward goal, never really settling on a flight path. England keeper David James, for example, called the Jubalani “dreadful” in 2010. But attackers also have reason to gripe when you consider the countless skewed free kicks, wayward crosses, and loose penalties lofted over the bar in World Cups and other major international tournaments.
Let’s hope Albert, freshly imbued with pink and pastel blue, doesn’t skid off the grass as if on ice, leaving the intended recipient little chance of tracking it down. Let’s also hope when the world’s best wing-backs push routine short deliveries to the central midfield that the ball’s weight stays true, instead of ricocheting into opponents like a plump beach ball. Certainly the squad most hopeful of the latter is Italy, the short ball maestros, who in South Africa (2010) had their normally sinuous flow disrupted not by the opposition, but by the lighter ball. It’s safe to say the Azzurri prefer meatball-like density. So do many others. For international soccer’s future success, the sport’s supreme anticipators must dominate the world stage. The players are the stars, not the ball. That’s why we should hope Albert flies under the radar this July, instead of sparkling and spinning at a feverish pitch.
—Photo credit: Ctd 2005/Flickr