A History of the World Cup in Ten Objects Part Four: The Telstar Ball
In a series of blogs, Professor of Sport Jean Williams looks at some of the artefacts that feature strongly in the history of the World Cup.
Telstar ball 1970 and 1974
Telstar was the name for various Russian communications satellites, roughly spherical in shape, launched from 1962 onwards to relay the first television pictures, telephone calls, fax images and live transatlantic television broadcasts. Because the transmission and receiving equipment on the satellites lacked power, the huge ground antennas often had large cones to enhance broadcasts. Telstar passed into all kinds of popular culture from music to games and comics. So the design for the black and white Adidas Telstar football which came into use in the 1970 and 1974 World Cup tournaments, did so because it was to be mediated to a global live audience. Adidas were past masters at this technique, since they had patented their classic three stripe design so that their products could be differentiated in still and moving images back in 1948. Using a patented Buckminster 32 panel design to help with accuracy, the ball became widely replicated in plastic children’s toys at the same time that Telstar technology passed into popular culture. The increasingly modernist design used at this World Cup incorporated pictograms, also evident in the 1968 Mexico Olympic Games, as new visual identities increasingly linked artists with graphic sporting communication.
However, footballs had always been controversial in terms of their effect on the outcome of matches in World Cups. The 1930 World Cup final between hosts Uruguay and neighbours Argentina on the Rio Plata was the latest round of a long running grudge match. The last time the sides had played in Buenos Aries the crowd had stoned the Uruguayan team and the police had arrested their forward Scarone on the pitch. The Belgian referee, Jean Langenus, had asked the Uruguayan government to provide a boat ready to depart from the harbour within one hour of the final whistle. Levels of trust were so low that one half of the match had to be played with the Uruguayan ball and one half with the Argentinean.
By 1978, when Argentina hosted the tournament the ball would be called the Tango, but this was hardly a festival atmosphere. The overt politicization of the atmosphere was overseen by General Jorge Rafael Videla and other junta chiefs who had staged a military coup just two years before and used the tournament as a form of propaganda for their ‘Dirty War’ on political dissidents, many of whom became ‘the Disappeared.’
Although it was the first time that the number of national associations entering the World Cup tournament had exceeded 100, the Netherlands led calls for a boycott and both Johan Cruyff and West Germany’s Paul Breitner declared themselves unavailable. The Tango ball had a form of triad design, designed like Adidas’ three stripes to differentiate the brand visually when the ball travelled at speed. The Azteca for Mexico 1986 would be the first synthetic ball, a long way from the heavy leather ball of 1930. So back to the Telstar 18 ball for Russia 2018, this references Adidas technological change and the cultural influence Russia had with the launch of the original Telstar in 1970. The newer ball has only six panels and contains another innovation: the Near Field Communication chip.
- Jean Williams is Professor Sport and part of the University of Wolverhampton’s Institute of Sport and Human Science. She also works closely with the National Football Museum in Manchester.
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