One of Top Gear's more famous stunts is the soccer match between two teams of Toyota Aygos in which they tried to knock a comically oversized ball through opposing goals. Top Gear host Richard Hammond introduced the match as a new sport based on playground soccer rules, but unbeknownst to most viewers, the game existed before the first Toyota was ever even built. Known as autoball, or autobol, the first match took place on the pitch of the FC Frankonia soccer team in Karlsruhe, Germany in 1933. Since then it has disappeared and been resurrected several times, each with a slightly different spin on the game.
The origins of autoball can be traced to Karl Kappler, a successful racer in 1920s Germany. Kappler partially retired in the early 1930s, but he still wanted to participate in automotive endurance events. For some reason, trying to score goals with a bunch of cars sounded like the perfect solution to his problem. No official rules were recorded, but matches were played in teams of two or four using future classics such as the Wanderer W10 and the Mercedes-Benz Type 290.
Of course, a standard soccer ball was not suitable for such a game, so Kappler worked with Continental to create a special ball that was four feet in diameter. In the very first match, Kappler faced off against Opel dealer and gentleman racer Willy Engesser. The tires on Kappler's Mercedes were better suited for the terrain, and he was able to take home the win. The local press was delighted with the first match, and Kappler would go on to stage three more until his full retirement in 1935. With the sport's creator and main champion gone, autoball quickly died off.
Autoball was unwittingly re-invented as autobol in the early 1970s by Mario Tourinho, a competitive racer and orthopedist in Brazil. In his book Futebol: The Brazilian Way of Life, author Alex Bello explains the wacky story of how Tourinho came up with the sport. According to Bello, the Sao Paulo ball factory had created a four-foot commemorative ball to honor the Brazilian national team, but the ball just sat around the factory gathering dust. Eventually, someone had the brilliant (terrible?) idea of using it for a game of equestrian soccer. But alas, it appears that while you can lead a horse to the pitch, you can't make it kick. The one horse that did attempt to kick the ball ended up breaking its leg. With horse-ball a failure, the commemorative ball got passed around until it made its way to Tourinho. Driving along one day, the doctor had an epiphany when he encountered a soccer ball coming toward his windshied. Instead of dodging the ball, he decided to "kick it" with his car. And thus autobol was born.
Tourinho organized a league and secured venues for matches that would have anywhere from two to six cars participating per team. The first games occurred during halftime of a professional soccer match, and the inaugural season consisted of four teams that drove Renault Dauphines with the occasional Volkswagen 1600 making an appearance. By far the most spectacular part of Brazilian autobol was that the soccer-like rules were enforced by a referee monitoring each game on foot while trying to dodge the cars and the 26-pound ball. The drivers of the cars were a varied bunch, with local cab drivers competing against rich playboys from the entertainment and banking industries. The matches were memorably destructive and reports of lost teeth and broken limbs were not uncommon.
The rules of autobol were mostly modeled after standard soccer rules, but certain plays, such as throw-ins and corner kicks, were excluded. The most destructive part of the game came during the bout of chicken that occurred when trying to regain a contested ball. Two cars would line up on opposing sides of the field and go full-throttle toward the ball until one car bailed or both cars crashed into each other. Head-on crashes were such a common occurrence that technicians with sledgehammers were stationed on the sideline to untangle the cars if needed. The public embraced the game initially with as many as 15,000 fans in attendance for some of the larger matches, but the sport eventually foundered once again, this time due to the economic impact of the 1973 oil crisis.
Autoball's demise didn't last long this time, however. Just a few years later the sport was resurrected in the former Yugoslavia. Brazilian autobol served as the model for the Yugoslav version of the sport, and many of the same rules and techniques were used in a slightly more conservative manner. The Yugoslav version leaned more toward the soccer side than the demolition derby side, so there were no games of chicken. In 1978, the sport's official venue became the Tasmajdan Sports and Recreation Center in Belgrade, Serbia. The complex was built atop a Roman quarry used for building the ancient city of Singidunum (present day Belgrade) around 86 A.D. Opening in 1958, Tasmajdan hosted many major sporting events, including a visit from Bill Russell and Oscar Robertson for the 1964 NBA All-Stars' Yugoslav Tour.
The first match took place in May 1978 and attracted a crowd of 1500 people. The creator and referee for the league was Branimir "Joe" Peric, a rally racer and actor known for taking Zastavas on transcontinental expeditions. Under Peric's direction, the vehicle of choice for competition became the . The 750 was built under license from Fiat at the Zastava factory that currently produces the Fiat 500L. The car was equipped with a tiny 25-horsepower, four-cylinder engine, but that was plenty enough to move the 1400-pound supermini around the field.
The Yugoslav league featured two teams, Red Star and Belgrade. Veteran Yugoslav rally racer Pavle Komnenovic won the first match for Red Star by scoring the final goal to make the score eight to seven. Autobol became quite popular with the public, and the league toured the country for a couple of years with the last large event being played in the city of Krusevac. During that match, Komnenovic flipped his Zastava over the ball and broke his hand as the car fell on its side, ending his autoball career. As with Kappler's departure in Germany, interest in the sport waned once the star left the game. Soon after, the 750 also met its end as the Kragujevac factory transitioned production over to the Yugo in the early 1980s.
In the following decades, autoball mostly disappeared from the world until Top Gear revisited the sport in 2005. The first match was a success for the show and Toyota, which was promoting its newest version of the Aygo. James May and Richard Hammond picked from a group of current and racers that included former . Hammond captained the blue team and scored a last minute goal to win the game. A follow-up match pitted the Volkswagen Fox against the Aygo. With the fleet of Aygos carrying battle scars from the previous match, the Fox team, led by Hammond, took the win.
The attention brought to the sport by Top Gear spurred autoball's popularity once more. Hyundai sponsored a between eight teams in 2010 as part of their World Cup promotion. The game has also shown up in amateur circles all . One match held at the Irwindale Speedway featured a more game using a 400-pound steel soccer ball.
Autoball came full circle in Germany with the 2007 revival of the sport on the game show Schlag den Raab. On the show, contestants compete against the host, Stefan Raab, in a variety of disciplines for the chance to win a cash prize. Autoball was a featured challenge in a November 2007 episode, and after its success, Raab went on to organize televised European and World autoball championships to coincide with the European Football Championships in 2008 and 2012 along with the World Cup in 2010 and 2014.
The championships feature elimination groups similar to soccer tournaments and matches are played one-on-one. Raab has represented Germany in each competition while the rest of the field is a mix of athletes, musicians, and actors. Raab won the first championship in 2008 beating the Irish car driven by musician Joey Kelly. These tournaments also saw the participation of Bosnia (formerly part of Yugoslavia) and Brazil, rounding out the countries for which autoball owes its greatest debt. With growing international appeal and millions tuning in to watch the most recents events, perhaps autoball is finally here to stay.