How Footballs Became Magic.
The story of this project could easily be told like Homer’s Odyssey. Admittedly, the long quest of photographer Jens Heilmann didn't take such dramatic turns, but he did bring home wonderful gifts from his trips: footballs, hovering and glistening like moons in the jet-black night. At the beginning, there was a trivial idea: to create a memory card game with footballs. Jens Heilmann himself is more of an artist than he is a football fan. He is a photographer and thinks in a sequence of pictures and in creative concepts.However, while driving to Munich in the April of 2007, all of a sudden several questions popped into his head: did the footballs of recent decades have indeed always the same design? Different colours? Were they ever photographed by one individual? He could not remember. And so he became curious. Wouldn’t it be fascinating, he thought to himself, to have a sequence of identical graphic forms? Initial internet searches on footballs showed only horridly photographed stuff. Moreover, there was only scant information about the originals. Apparently, when it came to football, the world was only interested in goals and artistic over-head kicks, in saved penalties and vicious fouls, in posing winners and fallen idols. Pelé and Beckham, Beckenbauer and Valdano, Rossi and Puskás – all at the centre of attention in all the football albums and photo galleries. But this shapely plaything, the single item they all fight over passionately, the one thing players sometime caress ever so softly and other times kick viciously into high heavens… gets simply ignored. It was pure coincidence that Heilmann discovered his first ball. His trial balloon. In a shop for garden appliances, he found this ball with a sponsor’s logo on it
and asked, if he could borrow it for a while. He got it as a gift. Heilmann began experimenting in his studio. His footballs should appear magical. No hard edges. No dominant reflections, no dark side. He knew that the balls would have a variety of different, shiny surfaces. What about the background? White does not work well with white. Colour seems too pushy. So: black it is. Photographically, he would manage it somehow. So naturally, his first trip took him to Adidas in Herzogenaurach, not very far from Munich. This company has been supplying the whole world with footballs since the dawn of time. Heilmann went on to Frankfurt/Main, to the headquarters of the German Football Association, the DFB. Here, the ball of the 1954 final is kept in a vault. Another photo. How smoothly it all went. And how fascinating the first pictures were! Heilmann gained new perspectives:: a limited edition book, exhibition. And the photographer walked with a spring in his step: he believed he had already crossed the finish line. A big mistake, as it turned out. Jens Heilmann went to Preston, England, in order to photograph the footballs of the 1930 and 1966 World Cups. He wrote to several football associations, companies, museums, always on the hunt for original balls that had been in World Cup play. He sent e-mails around the globe. He asked for permission to take pictures, inquired about the possible journeys a certain ball could have made. Everything in art that appears simple is a result of laborious toil and efforts and tedious finishing touches. Ask any great ballerina, any gymnast, any sculptor. But above all, Heilmann learned one thing: to wait. To endure, when there were no reactions. Not to despair, when he was sent down the
wrong path. It could even take months until a chance to shoot a single picture might present itself. As was the case in January of 2008, when he drove to Florence to visit the Museo Del Calcio. As usual, he had packed five aluminium crates of equipment: camera, tripods, flash generators, lamps, film cassettes… It’s just not possible without 100 kilos of luggage. But after all that effort, he had the pictures of the footballs of 1934, ’38 and ’62 secured on his sheet films, in 10x13 centimetre format. There were setbacks. Publishing houses seemed likely to pass. Literary agents shrugged their shoulders. Companies and football associations didn't show any interest in cooperating. In the summer of 2009, the project came close to be cancelled. Two years of work and money invested – all for nothing? You have to be obsessed with something in order not to give up. Jens Heilmann decided to publish the project independently with his friend and graphic designer Gunther Weis. They would set out to realise their maiden project together without any financial security. They approached Lars Reichardt, a journalist and football fan. He was convinced, eager and promised to write a text about each World Cup ball. Another important step was made. It became obvious that this unique idea required integrity. The story of each ball had to be faultlessly documented and only balls that had been used in World Cups should be featured. There were doubts about the authenticity of the ball from 1950. Fifa held its tongue. Ball manufacturers could not help. At each World Cup, dozens of footballs were being used – at this point, there are 15 per game; which one was really used on the pitch and which one crossed the goal line in a final? Heilmann flew to the US, to Oneonta in the state of New York. After visiting the National Soccer Hall, he had another ball under his belt: the only ball from 1950 that is reliably documented. Looking at Jens Heilmann’s photos is like taking a
walk through a museum of archaeology. Like an excavator, the artist has exposed layer upon layer of the history of football. A development becomes visible: of 80 years, of technical innovations, of designs. And those who love football get drawn into new dream worlds with each of these balls. Karl Marx thought that the history of a people is a history of class struggles. And the history of football – in an attempt to tease him – is more than a history of tackles. Wasn’t there always a ball involved, too? It is more than just leather and plastic. Why else would Diego Maradona claim: “To me, the ball is both a mother and a lover.” Or one can follow us and listen to goalkeeper Sepp Maier, who appeared in eight World Cups and saw four finals, telling stories about hate, rage and the comedic aspects of the game. It might sound now as if the matter slowly reached an end. Wrong. It had only just begun. In October 2009, the photographer came across a name that should prove crucial: René Sopp; a recognised collector of all things football, living in Leipzig and networking with other experts all over the world. The footballs of 1990, 2002 and 2006 are from Sopp’s collection. Collector Roger Saur was responsive and sent the 1994 and 1998 footballs via airfreight from New York City, USA. On the return trip, these assets very nearly got lost. At Christmas, Heilmann flew to see Francisco Aquino in Guadalajara on the Pacific coast of Mexico and photographed the only documented ball of 1970. Aquino had flatly refused to send it to Germany, not even in the form of a secured art transport. It is his biggest treasure. Another hint led to Erich Linemayr in Linz, an Austrian referee: 1974 and 1978 could be checked off. The Sportmuseum Schweiz in Basel, Switzerland, was helpful: another ball from ‘54, plus ‘62 and ‘66. For the 1982 ball, there was suddenly a new lead. Three years ago, a German publishing house had auctioned off a ball from 1930 to a museum
in Spain. The World Cup 1982 was in Spain. So could there be…? But the trail went cold; a game ball from 1982 was for now nowhere to be found. But then Dino Maas, a collector from Moers, contributed an original ball; he also was able to help with the footballs of 1986 and 2006. Now it was still necessary to meet Bengt Ågren in Stockholm, the last living witness, who participated in choosing the World Cup ball of 1958 out of 102 footballs… The photographer boarded a flight. So now, in the early summer of 2010, Jens Heilmann and Gunther Weis can finally announce: mission accomplished. After three years and several thousand e-mails, after endless telephone calls between all those involved and after long hours brooding meticulously over the elaborate design and production. After sustained research for all the texts. After plane trips around half the world and after criss-crossing drives through Switzerland, Austria, Italy, England… After innumerable setbacks and after prolonged support by people who allowed themselves to be swept away by the magic of those footballs.