You Gotta Keep It Up

Life comes with very few absolute rules. You should never get involved in a land war in Asia. Never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line. And when you have a  balloon in the room, never let it touch the ground.

You’ve probably experienced that last one. You’re at, say, your nephew’s 4th birthday party, and there are a bunch of latex balloons. They were inflated with regular air, not helium, so they’re not floating away; rather, the balloons are kind of bouncing up and down and they float around the room. Most of them fall gently to the floor but someone — quite likely an adult — casually swats a balloon skyward. Others take notice and do the same to that very same balloon, and organically, it’s now everyone’s job to keep that balloon from hitting the ground, and you don’t want to be the person who lets that awful thing happen. No, no… that would be inconceivable.

For some, this is a brief activity, but for others, it becomes a mission — and soon, a competition. Most of the grown-ups and many of the kids get bored of the game and move on, but the remaining few turn it into a competition. Without outlining anything resembling rules, a game breaks out. When it’s your turn — and sometimes it is ambiguous if it is actually your turn or someone else’s — you must do whatever it takes to keep that balloon from hitting the floor. Climb over the couch. Slide through the kitchen. Bump into grandma. Whatever it takes.

Usually, something almost breaks or someone almost gets hurt, and then one of the non-playing grown-ups makes it clear that the game has to end, right then and there. It doesn’t, of course, but then that same adult makes it abundantly clear that the game needs to end, right then, and right there, and over some minor consternation, it does. But that is because most of these games, again, happen at small parties and informal settings, and, again, happen organically. But that wasn’t what happened in October of 2021 in the city of Tarragona, Spain. Instead, this happened.

That’s a screenshot from the final of the 2021 Balloon World Cup, a first annual event. As CNN reported, competitors from 32 countries donned helmets and battled it out, one versus one. Their field of play?  A mock living room, as seen above. (The Volkswagen was only added for the final match.) Per SB Nation, “there were only two rules in the ‘Balloon World Cup,’ you can’t hinder your opponent’s path to the balloon, and all hits must be in an upward motion — making it illegal to spike the balloon into the ground, like a game of volleyball.” And, of course, you can’t let the balloon touch the ground when it’s your turn to hit it, or your opponent gets a point.

The event was brought to life by Spanish footballer Gerard Piqué and streamer Ibai Llanos — but only because of an online joke. As the Guardian reported, “Llanos joked on Twitter in August that the game should have its own World Cup, with Piqué replying he would make it happen if Llanos’s tweet received more than 50k retweets.” And it while Llanos’ tweet didn’tPiqué’s did. The two teamed up to make the Balloon World Cup a reality, and millions were ready for it. Per SB Nation, more than 8 million people watched at least part of the event on Twitch, the live-streaming gaming platform, “with over 600,000 concurrent viewers [tuning in] for the final.” A 49-second clip of that final match earned more than 13 million views on Twitter. And this 21-minute replay of the final match has 2.2 million views on YouTube. 

In the final, a Peruvian named Francesco De La Cruz triumphed over Germany’s Jan Spieb. For his efforts, De La Cruz walked away with a bronze-plated balloon trophy,  €10,000 (or about $11,300), and bragging right that none of us can ever match.

Bonus fact: The song “99 Luftballons” by Nena was the band’s only hit in the United States; it reached #2 in the Billboard Hot 100 in March of 1984. The song is in German but, hoping to get it some additional radio play (and sales) in the States, the band re-released it, translated into English, as “99 Red Balloons.” The balloons became red for the English version; there’s is no reference to their color in the original song (although there is one to “Captain Kirk”), and the balloons pictured in the original video (seen here) come in many colors. The “red” was most likely added simply to account for the lost syllable when translating “luftballons” to “balloons.”

From the Archives: Balloonacy: A very bad idea that sounded fun (but wasn’t).