OWho hasn’t been to a children’s party and started an impromptu follow-up game with a ball? It’s fun, addictive and can get very competitive. Well, that same game just had its own World Cup, won by Peru, after a thrilling final watched by sold-out crowds in Spain and around eight million Twitch viewers online.
If you’re wondering how a seemingly childish activity could become a legitimate source of sports entertainment, we have to go back to Covid lockdowns and how those suffering from cabin fever got creative to stay active at home. Some juggled with rolls of toilet paper, indoor parkour or ran marathons on their balconies.
Antonio and Diego Arredondo, along with their sister Isabel, relived their childhood by jumping around their living room in Oregon in spectacular fashion as they tried to keep a ball in the air.
“We started arguing about whether [the balloon] touch the ground or not, so we started taking slow motion videos to see if that was the case, and then finally we came to the next point: let’s post this video of us on Tik-Tok,” Antonio told Reuters. Their extremely entertaining games quickly went viral.
In Spain, the celebrity streamer Ibai Llanos has become a huge fan, as has Barcelona defender Gerard Pique, who loves a bit of fun and is in shape to get involved in other sports, after revamping the Davis Cup.
Llanos joked on Twitter in August that the game should have its own World Cup, with Pique responds that he would get there if Llanos’ tweet received more than 50,000 retweets. He got a lot more. With a bit of clever marketing, Llanos’ throwaway remark became a reality in Tarragona last weekend.
Thirty-two competitive hot air balloon teams were invited to push their skills to the limit in a battle to be crowned world champions at PortAventura theme park.
Diego Arredondo, one of the siblings widely credited with inspiring the tournament, was among those competing in an eye-catching arena that resembled a glass-enclosed living room. In the following laps, oddly enough, a car was parked in the middle, but every successful sport needs a sponsor.
The rules are simple: the ball must always be kicked upwards and a point is won if it hits the ground. Matches last between two and five minutes and the player leading when the clock stops wins and, just like squash, competitors must not get in the way of their rival.
Match highlights are fun to revisit, with Spanish commentators, Llanos and Ander Corts, regularly losing it as they revel in the underhanded tactics of competitors who play bunts behind obstacles or when a player jumps over furniture to save a point. Unlike some sports, men can play against women and helmets must be worn to guard against head injuries – a collision with the corner of a dining table could be unpleasant.
Officials from the world of football take their job very seriously and refer close calls to the VAR room, where slow motion is used to determine whether the ball hits the ground or not. Former La Liga veteran assistant referee Rafa Guerrero is particularly unofficial as he watches the game closely, with pundit Pique regularly asking for his opinion as if he were a fledgling veteran of the sport and not a legend of Spanish football.
There is a thrilling first-round derby between Andorra and France which goes to sudden death with the score 6-6 before a mistake by the French rookie (a downward kick) offers the small principality a huge victory. There is an angry reaction from Italy as they are controversially eliminated by Morocco and there is a shock first round defeat for one of the sport’s founding fathers as Arredondo, representing the States States, is dropped by Cuba.
Great Britain also fall at the first hurdle, with Equatorial Guinea proving to be far too tricky with a mixture of power strikes and feather finger tapping to advance 6-3.
Online figures reached 600,000 concurrent viewers as the tournament reached the final between Peruvian Francesco de la Cruz and Germany’s Jan Spiess. The 300 fans crammed into the venue (including Sergio Agüero and Jordi Alba) got their money’s worth as the players threw themselves onto the pitch in epic style, bouncing off furniture and knocking over chairs in a thrilling spectacle.
It was 18-year-old De la Cruz who emerged victorious after expertly using the car for ball throws. “I’m very, very happy, thank God I was able to achieve this,” he said after lifting the Ballon d’Or (the Ballon d’Or?) and winning €10,000 (£8,430 ).
It’s unclear if the event was a one-off or if it will be back next year. But if people keep buying the range of Snazzy Merchandise #keepitup Balloon World Cup and posting videos of their own skills online, then expect it to become an annual event. Some World Cups are worth organizing more regularly.