The balls used in football’s biggest matches have changed dramatically since the first tournament in Uruguay in 1930.
In many ways, the World Cup’s history parallels the evolution of professional football.
That can be seen in the evolution of the World Cup ball, which has progressed from a leather-bound pig’s bladder to the high-tech, synthetic spheres that are now sold and marketed around the world.
The ball has also had an impact on the history of the World Cup.
From a halftime ball change that influenced a final to the “supermarket” model despised by goalkeepers, here is GOAL’s history of official World Cup football.
Tiento and T-Model
Surprisingly, the first World Cup, held in Uruguay in 1930, did not feature an official ball. Argentina and Uruguay fought over who would supply the ball prior to the final and agreed to switch it at halftime.
It had the potential to have a significant impact on the game’s outcome. Argentina led 2-1 at halftime before Uruguay introduced a larger, heavier ball, and the hosts promptly scored three unanswered goals to win the championship.
Argentina’s ball was called the ‘Tiento’ (shown without laces), while Uruguay’s was called the ‘T-Model.’
Because they were sewn and inflated by hand, even identical balls were unique at the time. If it rained, they would become even heavier.
Federdale 102 Ball
The second World Cup was held in Italy, which was then ruled by Benito Mussolini’s dictatorship. His government made the Federale 102 ball, but other balls from England were also used in the tournament.
The substitution of cotton laces for leather laces, which were much softer and more forgiving for players heading the ball, was one of the most significant innovations.
Quality control was difficult, however, because balls were made by hand at the time, with the skill of the inflator determining how spherical the finished product was.
Before each game, the two captains were shown several balls and asked to choose their favorite. As a result, the final game was played with an English ball, much to Mussolini’s chagrin.
Fortunately, the Italian team won the World Cup for the first time.
Allen, a Paris-based manufacturer, was the first to be allowed to brand its balls when the World Cup came to France in 1938.
This ball was similar to the Italian Federale 102. The cotton laces, as well as the 13th panel to which they were sewn, remained.
The edges of the panels on the Allen ball were more rounded than those on the Federale, a trend that would continue when the sport resumed in full after WWII.
The Allen ball, however, did not completely dominate the tournament. Other 12- and 18-panel models have been photographed, with the issue being that insufficient ball inflation may render it unreliable.
T DUPLO Ball
After the 1938 tournament, there was a 12-year wait for the next World Cup due to World War II, which resulted in a significant advance in ball production.
The big breakthrough for the 1950 tournament, on the other hand, had been made in Argentina in the early 1930s and was just waiting to be approved for use in a FIFA competition.
This ball was known as the ‘Superval’ for several years before being renamed the ‘Superball’ after the company behind it expanded into Brazil.
The innovation eliminated the need for skilled inflation experts by creating a completely closed leather sphere without laces. The balls were inflated using a pump and needle and a tiny valve that is still in use today.
The Duplo T was the Superball model used at the 1950 World Cup, and it was the first model to be used uniformly across all matches at a single tournament due to the consistency with which it could be inflated.
Switzerland’s World Champion
The World Cup was held in Switzerland in 1954, so the Basel-based company Kost Sport created a Swiss ball.
Their ‘Swiss World Champion’ ball advanced even further by incorporating an 18-panel structure with interlocking zig-zag panels. That shape was used in some balls for decades.
Because of that structure and the brighter yellow color, this could be the first ball to resemble the models used in the 1980s and 1990s.
Unfortunately for Kost Sport, FIFA reintroduced, seemingly at random, their rule prohibiting any branding from appearing on the ball at this World Cup.
The Best Ball
FIFA took the first steps toward launching a competition to supply the tournament ball for Sweden’s 1958 World Cup.
They accomplished this by inviting manufacturers to send in unbranded balls with an envelope identifying the company from which they originated.
All 102 entries were collected and numbered by a lawyer. The balls were then inspected and tested by four members of FIFA’s organizing committee and two Swedish football officials.
By lunchtime, they had narrowed the field to ten, and a few hours later, they had chosen No. 55 as the official ball of the 1958 World Cup.
The winning ball, known as the Top Star and manufactured by an Angelholm company, was the first in a World Cup to have 24 panels. Each team received 30, with the option of purchasing more from Brazil.
The Top Star was, in some ways, the first ball to be used at more than one World Cup. More on that later.
Before the Jabulani, there was the Crack.
This was the ball chosen for the first World Cup in Chile in 1962, and it received widespread criticism.
The Crack, designed by Chilean firm Custodio Zamora, featured 18 irregularly divided panels, some hexagonal, some rectangular, and so on, all of which were hand-sewed together.
All teams, particularly those from Europe, were unimpressed. When it was determined that the Crack ball was insufficient, 100 of the Top Star balls, which were used in the 1958 World Cup, were shipped over and used.
The Crack, on the other hand, pioneered a significant innovation in the form of a latex inflation valve, which was later adopted by many other models.
The 1966 World Cup ball was chosen in a blind test, just as it had been in 1958, and it was the first ball manufactured by a major modern brand.
The English Football Association took several precautions to ensure that no one involved in the FIFA Bureau meeting in London had any prior knowledge of the 111 balls submitted.
Forty-eight failed to meet specifications, and two more failed to maintain the required standard over a longer testing period after the remaining field was reduced to eight.
The eventual winner was Slazenger’s Challenge 4-Star ball, which is better known for its racket-sports equipment. It was similar to the Top Star but had 25 panels instead of 24.
The 1966 World Cup testing and development process was by far the most advanced in World Cup history at the time. For the finals, 400 footballs in three different colors were requested, and each competing national association received the ball six months before the tournament to get used to it.
The most dramatic change in the history of the World Cup ball occurred in 1970.
That was the arrival of Adidas, whom FIFA tasked with designing the ball for the tournament in Mexico following their success with the European Cup in 1968 and the Olympic Games shortly after, also in Mexico.
As a result, the Mexican Football Federation supported Adidas.
The Telstar, created by Adidas to improve television visibility during the first World Cup to be broadcast globally, would become an iconic ball.
The black-and-white, 32-panel ball was not the first of its kind; like the first laceless World Cup ball, the Duplo T, in 1950, the design had been around for a while in certain European countries.
Telstar, on the other hand, saw FIFA seize the trend and globalize it.
The Telstar was such a success that for the 1974 tournament in West Germany, Adidas’ home country, it was only slightly modified and not completely redeveloped.
The ball was renamed ‘Telstar Durlast,’ but the ‘Duralast’ part remained on the 1970 ball. This is the coating that is applied to the ball to protect the leather and ensure its durability in wet conditions.
The 1974 ball received a thicker coat of ‘Durlast,’ giving it its signature shine.
The good news for Adidas is that they can leave their branding on the ball now that they are official FIFA partners.
As a result, the Telstar Durlast became a big seller, with the same ball used on the field now available in stores. Furthermore, Johan Cruyff’s and the Netherlands’ brilliance in that tournament has contributed to it becoming yet another classic design.
The Tango, named after Argentina’s famous dance, was introduced by Adidas in 1978.
It went on to become one of the most popular balls ever made, but Adidas was clearly concerned about releasing their second World Cup design, so they manufactured a number of ‘Telstar 1978’ balls as a backup plan.
On the other hand, the Tango took off, ditching the Telstars’ black panels in favor of an all-white base with black triangles arranged in a circular pattern, which created a certain effect when the ball rolled across the grass.
It quickly sold out and became the world’s most recognizable ball.
Aside from its iconic design, the Tango is associated with nostalgia because it marked the beginning of the end for the leather ball.
Tango Espana Ball
When Adidas introduced the Tango Espana for the 1982 World Cup in Spain, it didn’t mess around with a winning formula.
The Tango Espana improved the ball’s water resistance and durability, and the Duralast coating was no longer required because the seams were now welded as well as sewed together.
A water-repellent polyurethane layer was added in 1984, bringing us one step closer to the death of the leather ball above – more on that in the following section.
Aside from that, the addition of Adidas’ three-leaf trefoil logo was the most noticeable difference.
The Azteca is not a particularly memorable ball in and of itself, but it is significant in World Cup ball history for two reasons.
To begin, Adidas designed a ball specific to the host country, this time Mexico, after reusing the Tango in Spain. That tradition will now be carried on at every tournament.
More importantly, this was the first World Cup in which a synthetic ball was used.
The appeal of synthetic balls was obvious: they immediately returned to their original shape after being kicked and outperformed leather balls in almost every aspect, including water resistance and durability.
The Azteca and Adidas’ trademark triangle patterns were inspired by Aztec architecture and murals.
Etrusco Unico Ball
The ball for Italia 90 was named after the Etruscans, an ancient Italian civilization, in keeping with the theme of paying homage to the host country.
The usual Tango-style’triads’ were embellished with the heads of Etruscan lions, a popular fine art subject at the time.
Following the 1986 World Cup, Adidas continued to improve the materials and properties of their fully synthetic ball, the Etrusco Unico, which was a step up from the Azteca.
Aside from the fact that the original Tangos were made of leather, the appearance of the official World Cup ball would change very little between 1978 and 1998.
For the first World Cup held in the United States, Adidas debuted the Questra.
The theme this time was space travel, which was reflected in both the design of the ball and the attempt to make it the most futuristic, high-performance model used at a World Cup to date.
After a fairly dull tournament in Italy, FIFA hoped to spice things up.
The main difference was a layer of polystyrene foam on the ball’s outside, which was supposed to make it softer to the touch and easier to control while also increasing its speed.
The effect was tangible. No team kept a clean sheet in the quarter-finals. Only three of the sixteen competitors survived the first knockout round. Although the final was one of only three 0-0 draws in the tournament, it was the highest-scoring World Cup since 1982, with some spectacular goals.
The World Cup was the first to be broadcast in color in 1970, but the ball did not follow suit until 1998.
The first multicolored ball was the Adidas Tricolore, which was introduced for France 98. The Tango triads were retained, but they were given a red, blue, and white flair to match the French flag.
There were performance improvements, with the foam layer introduced in 1994 being improved to make the ball softer and faster.
The most notable feature of the Tricolore was undoubtedly its design and established precedent.
Color opened Adidas’ eyes to a world of new possibilities, and the traditional Tango pattern was abandoned at the 2002 World Cup.
Adidas began testing the Fevernova, which was designed for the 2002 World Cup in South Korea and Japan.
They started by ditching the traditional Tango look in favor of a blank ball with larger green, gold, and red triangular patterns.
Despite exceeding FIFA’s weight limit, Adidas continued to innovate in terms of the ball’s technical aspects, with many players noting that the Fevernova felt lighter than previous models.
David Beckham, an Adidas ambassador who helped test the Fevernova, agreed that it was the most precise ball ever made.
On the other hand, Gianluigi Buffon described it as a “crazy bouncing ball.”
Teamgeist means “team spirit” in German, a nod to the hosts’ tradition of collective strength over individual brilliance.
The most notable change in 2006 was introducing a 14-panel design with fewer seams, with the goal of making the ball rounder and more consistent. It outperformed every other ball on the market at the time it was released.
Not everyone, however, was pleased.
Some players complained of a ‘knuckleball’ effect when the ball was in the air, claiming that its flight was too unpredictable. This was evident in the World Cup opening game, when Philipp Lahm and Torsten Frings scored spectacular goals that dipped and swerved in the air.
Adidas created a custom ball for each tournament match, printed with the fixture details, and also introduced a special gold version for the final, the ‘Teamgeist Berlin.’
In 2010, things really heated up.
The Jabulani may be the most famous ball ever made due to its fame. Adidas attempted to create a rounder ball than ever before by reducing the number of panels on the Teamgeist from 14 to just eight on the Jabulani.
Because it was so unpredictable, goalkeepers were outraged.
Iker Casillas described the Jabulani as “horrible,” while Julio Cesar compared it to supermarket balls. It was said to have an impact on both passing and shooting, and a dull, cagey group stage drew even more flak.
Adidas responded by claiming that the ball had been tested for six months and citing endorsements from Adidas-sponsored players, including Frank Lampard and Michael Ballack.
It took a NASA study to solve the problem in the end. Finally, the Jabulani began to ‘knuckle’ (move in the air) faster than previous balls due to its smoother surface and fewer seams.
In theory, this is a good thing, but shots like direct free kicks tend to travel at that faster speed, making the effect more noticeable in practice.
Adidas had a PR nightmare with the Jabulani, so they released what they claimed was the most-tested ball ever for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
It was known as the Brazuca, a slang term for ‘Brazilian,’ and it represents “national pride in the Brazilian way of life,” according to FIFA. It is decorated with multicolored ribbons that resemble popular Brazilian ‘wish bands.’
The number of panels on the ball was reduced yet again, with the Brazuca only having six.
Before the tournament, it was distributed to players, teams, and national associations all over the world for extensive testing and feedback. Adidas even distributed a disguised version for use in league games.
The Brazuca generated far less controversy and was adopted by a number of club leagues, including the Bundesliga and MLS.
18 Telstar Ball
In November 2017, Adidas released the Telstar 18, the official match ball of the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
It was the first tournament ball to be predominantly black and white since 1994, and it was a recreation of the original Adidas ball used at a World Cup, the classic 1970 Telstar.
The gold Adidas, Telstar, and World Cup logos were printed on the ball’s white surface, and the black sections created a gradient mosaic effect.
The Telstar 18 had only six panels, like the Brazuca, but they were arranged in a completely different shape, resembling the 32-panel 1970 ball.
A slightly modified version known as the ‘Telstar Mechta’ was introduced for the competition’s knockout stage. The Mechta (Russian for “dream” or “ambition”) was available in red and black on a white background.
The ball was extensively tested and used in a variety of youth competitions (with a different designs) in the run-up to the tournament, including the Under-20 World Cup.
Despite this, the ball drew criticism, with Spain internationals David de Gea and Pepe Reina claiming it was strange and difficult to grip.
Al Rihla Rihla Ball
The 2022 World Cup will be held in Qatar, and Adidas will manufacture the official match ball, Al Rihla.
The design differs slightly from previous World Cup balls, with 20 panels (14 more than the Telstar 18), but speed and accuracy remain key principles for the manufacturers, with Al Rihla built to maintain high flight speeds.
Adidas used a CRT Core and textured ‘Speedshell’ skin to try to ensure that the ball meets the needs of an increasingly fast-paced game.
Al Rihla, which means “the journey” in Arabic, like many of its predecessors, incorporates elements of the host country into the design, with the colors and motifs paying homage to the Qatar flag and architecture.