History

Shooting for the stars

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the adidas starball. It’s become an iconic part of the football furniture, but what’s the story behind its meteoric rise? Champions League co-founder Craig Thompson is a man with a few tales to tell on that subject, ably assisted by the designer who first envisaged the combination of a circle and those twinkling polygons…

WORDS Dan Poole

We’re on a video call with Craig Thompson, who’s sitting in his home office in Los Angeles. But it’s important to note that we’re Zooming rather than zooming along: that is, we’re taking our time to consider one of the most recognisable objects to have ever graced a sporting arena.

The focus of our discussion is, of course, the starball. Or, rather, the starball logo and the starball… ball. It’s the latter’s 20th anniversary this year, which adidas are recognising with a special edition for the final in Istanbul: each hexagonal panel will feature an element of the design from every ball to have graced the final since 2001.  Those designs have become increasingly sophisticated over the years, coming a long way from the original white ball with silver stars (and, the following season, the version with black stars that was immortalised by Zinédine Zidane with his volley in the 2002 final). Compare those with the ball featuring multicoloured, angry-looking bears for the 2014/15 knockout stage (the final was in Berlin), the 2016/17 group-stage ball covered in messages from the competition’s biggest names and the Cardiff Finale, replete with a menacing Welsh dragon.

This latest release – with its laminated surface and thermally bonded seamless construction – is a far cry from the prototype version that was created in 1992. Phil Clements can describe that one.

“I knew, because a ball is made up of pentagons and hexagons, that if you put a star on each pentagon then it should, in theory, work. I had one of the mock-up artists in the artwork department help me. We did it old school: we sprayed an adidas ball white, put frisk film on it with star shapes cut out and then sprayed it black.”

But we need to start at the beginning to establish Clements’ place in this origin story. Because before the spray paint came out, Thompson had been hard at work. Together with his colleagues at Team Marketing he was, on behalf of UEFA, in the process of transforming the European Cup into the Champions League, as we know the competition today. One of the key changes was the introduction of a group stage, which was initially made up of just two groups of four. Now he’d arrived at the point where he needed a logo, which meant sending out a brief to a number of design agencies and inviting them to pitch their ideas.

At London-based Design Bridge, Clements was sitting at his desk minding his own business. “The creative director walked around the studio before the meeting with Team Marketing and said, ‘Look, if anybody has got any quick ideas that we can stick on the wall to show these guys, feel free to chip in.’ And an idea just popped into my head.”

As ideas go it turned out to be quite a good one, stemming from a line in Thompson’s brief: “eight star teams come together”. “It was the thought of the European flag and football combined, so I drew a circle and drew stars in it,” says Clements. “But whichever way you were to hold a football, you wouldn’t see eight stars on it at once. So I kind of, for want of a better word, bodged them in.”

And so the starball logo was born. But what if Clements hadn’t been sat at his desk when the creative director put the call out for contributions? If he’d gone to make a cup of tea or popped off for a quick wee, what would the Champions League logo be now? “A meteorite, possibly; that was the other runner in the race. That the starball sailed through the process was a fluke, really.”

Craig Thompson was a key player in the development of the starball logo

Thompson begs to differ. “Logo design is so emotional and subjective; you show it to three people, you get three different opinions. It’s the nature of the business. So this was a breakthrough, a eureka moment, that doesn’t happen often in this world that we live in. It was created, it was seen, it was approved with rapture and there it was – we were done.”

Alas, not everything went according to plan: while no animals were harmed in the making of this logo, a prototype football was. “Some people thought it wasn’t a good idea to show it to UEFA at the pitch presentation in Gothenburg, and they were right,” says Clements. “One of the UEFA representatives took the ball and started playing with it in this meeting room – and probably a grand’s worth of mock-up literally went flying out the window. We lost the ball but we won the pitch.”

Soon enough, Thompson was in position to see the logo in all its glory on a football pitch for the first time: Wednesday 25 November 1992, as Glasgow Rangers played Marseille in one of four games across two groups on the inaugural matchday of the Champions League. That said, it wasn’t on show for quite as long as he would have liked.

“The centre-circle starball banner was there on the first night,” says Thompson. “I was in Glasgow with my colleague Jürgen Lens, sitting in a fishbowl of a VIP section: a little room surrounded by glass. We were so happy that the Champions League was just about to kick off that Jürgen said, ‘I want to get a couple of whiskies so that we can toast to this first match.’ Now, in Ibrox Stadium, you do not have whisky. It is verboten. Yet suddenly these whiskies were coming down the stairs – I don’t know where they came from.

“Then I’m looking out at the pitch, where the wind is really starting to kick up. And the kids who are holding the centre-circle starball are literally getting lifted off the ground; they are flying up in the air and coming down with a thud. And they don’t want to let go because they want to do their job. Jürgen said, ‘Craig, Craig! You’ve got to get that banner off the pitch, it’s dangerous!’

“I said, ‘Jürgen, we can’t remove that! That’s the starball! They’re about to do the line-ups! The kids will be OK!’

“‘No, Craig, we’ve got to save those kids!’

“So I had to leave my whisky behind and go down to the pitch to get the kids off. Still, when I got back to the little VIP room, my whisky was waiting. The game had now started so Jürgen and I made a toast – at which point some supporters spotted us. And they got angry. And they started banging on the glass. So the police came down and took us out, with our whiskies! We had to leave the VIP area at our own match to get yelled at by the police. What a mess.”

If you had the choice, what ball would you want to play with?’ He said, ‘Craig, there’s no decision to be made here: the Champions League ball is by far the best that we play with. That’s what all the players think. It’s beautiful. We love it.

Fortunately they were allowed back in to watch the rest of the game – albeit without their beverages.

By now the eagle-eyed among you may have noticed a dates-based discrepancy: if the logo was rolled out in 1992, why is it only the 20th anniversary of the starball ball? “It took a while,” concedes Thompson. That stars didn’t initially appear on the Champions League match ball was down to various commercial issues, but an actual starball was finally seen rolling around on a pitch for the first time in 2001, making its debut in the semi-final between Bayern München and Real Madrid.

By the 2006/07 season, all Champions League games were being played with an official match ball, rather than it being confined to the later stages of the competition. That resulted in the now-familiar format of one starball being used for the regular season and another for the knockouts, with a nod to the final host city incorporated into the design. The most recent advance was in 2010, when the match ball used for the final in Madrid included actual star shapes, rather than them being printed on.

Thompson has firsthand testimony that the people whose job it is to kick the starball around are suitably enamoured by it. “When I was in Barcelona, I went to the polo club to play some paddle tennis – and who should be there but Carles Puyol. He had recently retired and become an avid paddle tennis player. He hadn’t played much before, but boy was he good.

“Anyway, we went for a couple of beers afterwards and I was able to ask him a question: ‘If you had the choice, what ball would you want to play with?’ He said, ‘Craig, there’s no decision to be made here: the Champions League ball is by far the best that we play with. That’s what all the players think. It’s beautiful. We love it.’ I was blown away.”

The 20th anniversary starball that will grace the pitch in Istanbul’s Atatürk Olympic Stadium this season will have taken 18 months to make, thanks to the rigorous testing of its design, visibility and performance that will have taken place. But in truth it’s been 29 years in the making. “I’m really, really proud of it,” says Clements of that logo. “I liken it to Solskjaer’s goal at the end of the 1999 final: in one moment of my career I scored a lifetime winner. And it’s stood the test of time.”

“The minute we all saw that logo… it was a football, wasn’t it?” says Thompson. “All of a sudden we had this representative, symbolic logo – and it was a ball. So it was a dream come true, this iconic logo coming to life on the pitch, being kicked by the players. And what an impact.”

We’re on a video call with Craig Thompson, who’s sitting in his home office in Los Angeles. But it’s important to note that we’re Zooming rather than zooming along: that is, we’re taking our time to consider one of the most recognisable objects to have ever graced a sporting arena.

The focus of our discussion is, of course, the starball. Or, rather, the starball logo and the starball… ball. It’s the latter’s 20th anniversary this year, which adidas are recognising with a special edition for the final in Istanbul: each hexagonal panel will feature an element of the design from every ball to have graced the final since 2001.  Those designs have become increasingly sophisticated over the years, coming a long way from the original white ball with silver stars (and, the following season, the version with black stars that was immortalised by Zinédine Zidane with his volley in the 2002 final). Compare those with the ball featuring multicoloured, angry-looking bears for the 2014/15 knockout stage (the final was in Berlin), the 2016/17 group-stage ball covered in messages from the competition’s biggest names and the Cardiff Finale, replete with a menacing Welsh dragon.

This latest release – with its laminated surface and thermally bonded seamless construction – is a far cry from the prototype version that was created in 1992. Phil Clements can describe that one.

“I knew, because a ball is made up of pentagons and hexagons, that if you put a star on each pentagon then it should, in theory, work. I had one of the mock-up artists in the artwork department help me. We did it old school: we sprayed an adidas ball white, put frisk film on it with star shapes cut out and then sprayed it black.”

But we need to start at the beginning to establish Clements’ place in this origin story. Because before the spray paint came out, Thompson had been hard at work. Together with his colleagues at Team Marketing he was, on behalf of UEFA, in the process of transforming the European Cup into the Champions League, as we know the competition today. One of the key changes was the introduction of a group stage, which was initially made up of just two groups of four. Now he’d arrived at the point where he needed a logo, which meant sending out a brief to a number of design agencies and inviting them to pitch their ideas.

At London-based Design Bridge, Clements was sitting at his desk minding his own business. “The creative director walked around the studio before the meeting with Team Marketing and said, ‘Look, if anybody has got any quick ideas that we can stick on the wall to show these guys, feel free to chip in.’ And an idea just popped into my head.”

As ideas go it turned out to be quite a good one, stemming from a line in Thompson’s brief: “eight star teams come together”. “It was the thought of the European flag and football combined, so I drew a circle and drew stars in it,” says Clements. “But whichever way you were to hold a football, you wouldn’t see eight stars on it at once. So I kind of, for want of a better word, bodged them in.”

And so the starball logo was born. But what if Clements hadn’t been sat at his desk when the creative director put the call out for contributions? If he’d gone to make a cup of tea or popped off for a quick wee, what would the Champions League logo be now? “A meteorite, possibly; that was the other runner in the race. That the starball sailed through the process was a fluke, really.”

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Craig Thompson was a key player in the development of the starball logo

Thompson begs to differ. “Logo design is so emotional and subjective; you show it to three people, you get three different opinions. It’s the nature of the business. So this was a breakthrough, a eureka moment, that doesn’t happen often in this world that we live in. It was created, it was seen, it was approved with rapture and there it was – we were done.”

Alas, not everything went according to plan: while no animals were harmed in the making of this logo, a prototype football was. “Some people thought it wasn’t a good idea to show it to UEFA at the pitch presentation in Gothenburg, and they were right,” says Clements. “One of the UEFA representatives took the ball and started playing with it in this meeting room – and probably a grand’s worth of mock-up literally went flying out the window. We lost the ball but we won the pitch.”

Soon enough, Thompson was in position to see the logo in all its glory on a football pitch for the first time: Wednesday 25 November 1992, as Glasgow Rangers played Marseille in one of four games across two groups on the inaugural matchday of the Champions League. That said, it wasn’t on show for quite as long as he would have liked.

“The centre-circle starball banner was there on the first night,” says Thompson. “I was in Glasgow with my colleague Jürgen Lens, sitting in a fishbowl of a VIP section: a little room surrounded by glass. We were so happy that the Champions League was just about to kick off that Jürgen said, ‘I want to get a couple of whiskies so that we can toast to this first match.’ Now, in Ibrox Stadium, you do not have whisky. It is verboten. Yet suddenly these whiskies were coming down the stairs – I don’t know where they came from.

“Then I’m looking out at the pitch, where the wind is really starting to kick up. And the kids who are holding the centre-circle starball are literally getting lifted off the ground; they are flying up in the air and coming down with a thud. And they don’t want to let go because they want to do their job. Jürgen said, ‘Craig, Craig! You’ve got to get that banner off the pitch, it’s dangerous!’

“I said, ‘Jürgen, we can’t remove that! That’s the starball! They’re about to do the line-ups! The kids will be OK!’

“‘No, Craig, we’ve got to save those kids!’

“So I had to leave my whisky behind and go down to the pitch to get the kids off. Still, when I got back to the little VIP room, my whisky was waiting. The game had now started so Jürgen and I made a toast – at which point some supporters spotted us. And they got angry. And they started banging on the glass. So the police came down and took us out, with our whiskies! We had to leave the VIP area at our own match to get yelled at by the police. What a mess.”

If you had the choice, what ball would you want to play with?’ He said, ‘Craig, there’s no decision to be made here: the Champions League ball is by far the best that we play with. That’s what all the players think. It’s beautiful. We love it.

Fortunately they were allowed back in to watch the rest of the game – albeit without their beverages.

By now the eagle-eyed among you may have noticed a dates-based discrepancy: if the logo was rolled out in 1992, why is it only the 20th anniversary of the starball ball? “It took a while,” concedes Thompson. That stars didn’t initially appear on the Champions League match ball was down to various commercial issues, but an actual starball was finally seen rolling around on a pitch for the first time in 2001, making its debut in the semi-final between Bayern München and Real Madrid.

By the 2006/07 season, all Champions League games were being played with an official match ball, rather than it being confined to the later stages of the competition. That resulted in the now-familiar format of one starball being used for the regular season and another for the knockouts, with a nod to the final host city incorporated into the design. The most recent advance was in 2010, when the match ball used for the final in Madrid included actual star shapes, rather than them being printed on.

Thompson has firsthand testimony that the people whose job it is to kick the starball around are suitably enamoured by it. “When I was in Barcelona, I went to the polo club to play some paddle tennis – and who should be there but Carles Puyol. He had recently retired and become an avid paddle tennis player. He hadn’t played much before, but boy was he good.

“Anyway, we went for a couple of beers afterwards and I was able to ask him a question: ‘If you had the choice, what ball would you want to play with?’ He said, ‘Craig, there’s no decision to be made here: the Champions League ball is by far the best that we play with. That’s what all the players think. It’s beautiful. We love it.’ I was blown away.”

The 20th anniversary starball that will grace the pitch in Istanbul’s Atatürk Olympic Stadium this season will have taken 18 months to make, thanks to the rigorous testing of its design, visibility and performance that will have taken place. But in truth it’s been 29 years in the making. “I’m really, really proud of it,” says Clements of that logo. “I liken it to Solskjaer’s goal at the end of the 1999 final: in one moment of my career I scored a lifetime winner. And it’s stood the test of time.”

“The minute we all saw that logo… it was a football, wasn’t it?” says Thompson. “All of a sudden we had this representative, symbolic logo – and it was a ball. So it was a dream come true, this iconic logo coming to life on the pitch, being kicked by the players. And what an impact.”

We’re on a video call with Craig Thompson, who’s sitting in his home office in Los Angeles. But it’s important to note that we’re Zooming rather than zooming along: that is, we’re taking our time to consider one of the most recognisable objects to have ever graced a sporting arena.

The focus of our discussion is, of course, the starball. Or, rather, the starball logo and the starball… ball. It’s the latter’s 20th anniversary this year, which adidas are recognising with a special edition for the final in Istanbul: each hexagonal panel will feature an element of the design from every ball to have graced the final since 2001.  Those designs have become increasingly sophisticated over the years, coming a long way from the original white ball with silver stars (and, the following season, the version with black stars that was immortalised by Zinédine Zidane with his volley in the 2002 final). Compare those with the ball featuring multicoloured, angry-looking bears for the 2014/15 knockout stage (the final was in Berlin), the 2016/17 group-stage ball covered in messages from the competition’s biggest names and the Cardiff Finale, replete with a menacing Welsh dragon.

This latest release – with its laminated surface and thermally bonded seamless construction – is a far cry from the prototype version that was created in 1992. Phil Clements can describe that one.

“I knew, because a ball is made up of pentagons and hexagons, that if you put a star on each pentagon then it should, in theory, work. I had one of the mock-up artists in the artwork department help me. We did it old school: we sprayed an adidas ball white, put frisk film on it with star shapes cut out and then sprayed it black.”

But we need to start at the beginning to establish Clements’ place in this origin story. Because before the spray paint came out, Thompson had been hard at work. Together with his colleagues at Team Marketing he was, on behalf of UEFA, in the process of transforming the European Cup into the Champions League, as we know the competition today. One of the key changes was the introduction of a group stage, which was initially made up of just two groups of four. Now he’d arrived at the point where he needed a logo, which meant sending out a brief to a number of design agencies and inviting them to pitch their ideas.

At London-based Design Bridge, Clements was sitting at his desk minding his own business. “The creative director walked around the studio before the meeting with Team Marketing and said, ‘Look, if anybody has got any quick ideas that we can stick on the wall to show these guys, feel free to chip in.’ And an idea just popped into my head.”

As ideas go it turned out to be quite a good one, stemming from a line in Thompson’s brief: “eight star teams come together”. “It was the thought of the European flag and football combined, so I drew a circle and drew stars in it,” says Clements. “But whichever way you were to hold a football, you wouldn’t see eight stars on it at once. So I kind of, for want of a better word, bodged them in.”

And so the starball logo was born. But what if Clements hadn’t been sat at his desk when the creative director put the call out for contributions? If he’d gone to make a cup of tea or popped off for a quick wee, what would the Champions League logo be now? “A meteorite, possibly; that was the other runner in the race. That the starball sailed through the process was a fluke, really.”

Craig Thompson was a key player in the development of the starball logo

Thompson begs to differ. “Logo design is so emotional and subjective; you show it to three people, you get three different opinions. It’s the nature of the business. So this was a breakthrough, a eureka moment, that doesn’t happen often in this world that we live in. It was created, it was seen, it was approved with rapture and there it was – we were done.”

Alas, not everything went according to plan: while no animals were harmed in the making of this logo, a prototype football was. “Some people thought it wasn’t a good idea to show it to UEFA at the pitch presentation in Gothenburg, and they were right,” says Clements. “One of the UEFA representatives took the ball and started playing with it in this meeting room – and probably a grand’s worth of mock-up literally went flying out the window. We lost the ball but we won the pitch.”

Soon enough, Thompson was in position to see the logo in all its glory on a football pitch for the first time: Wednesday 25 November 1992, as Glasgow Rangers played Marseille in one of four games across two groups on the inaugural matchday of the Champions League. That said, it wasn’t on show for quite as long as he would have liked.

“The centre-circle starball banner was there on the first night,” says Thompson. “I was in Glasgow with my colleague Jürgen Lens, sitting in a fishbowl of a VIP section: a little room surrounded by glass. We were so happy that the Champions League was just about to kick off that Jürgen said, ‘I want to get a couple of whiskies so that we can toast to this first match.’ Now, in Ibrox Stadium, you do not have whisky. It is verboten. Yet suddenly these whiskies were coming down the stairs – I don’t know where they came from.

“Then I’m looking out at the pitch, where the wind is really starting to kick up. And the kids who are holding the centre-circle starball are literally getting lifted off the ground; they are flying up in the air and coming down with a thud. And they don’t want to let go because they want to do their job. Jürgen said, ‘Craig, Craig! You’ve got to get that banner off the pitch, it’s dangerous!’

“I said, ‘Jürgen, we can’t remove that! That’s the starball! They’re about to do the line-ups! The kids will be OK!’

“‘No, Craig, we’ve got to save those kids!’

“So I had to leave my whisky behind and go down to the pitch to get the kids off. Still, when I got back to the little VIP room, my whisky was waiting. The game had now started so Jürgen and I made a toast – at which point some supporters spotted us. And they got angry. And they started banging on the glass. So the police came down and took us out, with our whiskies! We had to leave the VIP area at our own match to get yelled at by the police. What a mess.”

If you had the choice, what ball would you want to play with?’ He said, ‘Craig, there’s no decision to be made here: the Champions League ball is by far the best that we play with. That’s what all the players think. It’s beautiful. We love it.

Fortunately they were allowed back in to watch the rest of the game – albeit without their beverages.

By now the eagle-eyed among you may have noticed a dates-based discrepancy: if the logo was rolled out in 1992, why is it only the 20th anniversary of the starball ball? “It took a while,” concedes Thompson. That stars didn’t initially appear on the Champions League match ball was down to various commercial issues, but an actual starball was finally seen rolling around on a pitch for the first time in 2001, making its debut in the semi-final between Bayern München and Real Madrid.

By the 2006/07 season, all Champions League games were being played with an official match ball, rather than it being confined to the later stages of the competition. That resulted in the now-familiar format of one starball being used for the regular season and another for the knockouts, with a nod to the final host city incorporated into the design. The most recent advance was in 2010, when the match ball used for the final in Madrid included actual star shapes, rather than them being printed on.

Thompson has firsthand testimony that the people whose job it is to kick the starball around are suitably enamoured by it. “When I was in Barcelona, I went to the polo club to play some paddle tennis – and who should be there but Carles Puyol. He had recently retired and become an avid paddle tennis player. He hadn’t played much before, but boy was he good.

“Anyway, we went for a couple of beers afterwards and I was able to ask him a question: ‘If you had the choice, what ball would you want to play with?’ He said, ‘Craig, there’s no decision to be made here: the Champions League ball is by far the best that we play with. That’s what all the players think. It’s beautiful. We love it.’ I was blown away.”

The 20th anniversary starball that will grace the pitch in Istanbul’s Atatürk Olympic Stadium this season will have taken 18 months to make, thanks to the rigorous testing of its design, visibility and performance that will have taken place. But in truth it’s been 29 years in the making. “I’m really, really proud of it,” says Clements of that logo. “I liken it to Solskjaer’s goal at the end of the 1999 final: in one moment of my career I scored a lifetime winner. And it’s stood the test of time.”

“The minute we all saw that logo… it was a football, wasn’t it?” says Thompson. “All of a sudden we had this representative, symbolic logo – and it was a ball. So it was a dream come true, this iconic logo coming to life on the pitch, being kicked by the players. And what an impact.”

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