World Cup Legacies: The (His)Story of Official Match Balls

Soccer has taken off in the last hundred years. And so has the ball. It has become lighter, rounder, more colourful, and head-friendly based on new insights and techniques. Let's find out more about it.

World Cup Legacies: The (His)Story of Official Match Balls
Development of a specie.

The World Cup is one of the most popular sporting events in the world, and the ball used in each tournament is an essential part of the game. From the first World Cup in 1930 to the present day, the design and technology of the balls have evolved significantly. Let's look at the history of World Cup balls and how they have changed.

In the early days of the World Cup, leather balls were the norm. These balls were heavy and often became waterlogged during rainy matches, making them difficult to control. The first World Cup ball, used in 1930, was made of brown leather and had 12 panels. Over the years, the number of panels on the ball increased, with the 1970 World Cup ball having 32 panels, which is still the standard today.

The shape of the ball

It may sound obvious, but the speed and course of a ball are determined solely by how it is kicked. A spherical ball allows the soccer player to refine his footwork to the point where he can control the flight and direction of the ball with tremendous precision. Players must be sure that when they step onto a pitch thousands of miles away from their home country, the ball is precisely the same size, weight, texture, and hardness.

This was not always the case.

In the early days of international football, different countries favoured different types of balls, and there were many disputes, sometimes with dramatic results. On one occasion in the 1920s, a European team visited South America. The English protested that the ball was too small and too heavy. They insisted that the game be played with one of their 'giant', lighter balls. They had brought two with them for training purposes. A heated argument ensued, and the start of the match was delayed. Finally, the South American hosts agreed to play with the European ball, much to the annoyance of the local crowd. When the ball was kicked among the spectators, they took out their knives and stabbed the ball several times. Another ball came in, but a spectator ran off when it was out of play. Finally, in sheer desperation, the Europeans agreed to play with the local team's small ball and lost the game.

During the first world championship in 1930, as many as 12 types of balls were used, and in the final, Argentina and Uruguay played with two balls. In the first half, the players kicked the Argentine Tiento and the Uruguayan T-Model in the second half. Justice was already an item back then.

In 1995, I became part of a ball controversy myself. Ajax Amsterdam was playing for the World Cup against Brazilian Grêmio with Tokyo as the setting. A day before the match, I visited Grêmio's training. Trainer Luiz Felipe Scolari took me aside. He wanted to know how Ajax handled the new Adidas Questra ball. According to Scolari, the latest edition of the ball was way too light. "My players kick the ball over the goal," he growled. Penalty kicks, in particular, worried him. "We hit a maximum of 60%. What is Ajax's percentage?" 80%, I said. My prediction turned out to be golden: the World Cup match was decided by penalties. Grêmio hit three (60%), Ajax four (80%). Afterwards, Scolari blamed the ball. His players had not gotten used to it in three days.

Soccer has taken off in the last hundred years. And so has the ball itself. It has become lighter, rounder, more colourful, and head-friendly based on new insights and techniques. The evolution of the ball and its influence on the game is perhaps best told through the various World Cup balls.

Shall we run through them?

1930 - Tiento

The Tiento was the first-ever World Cup ball, used during the inaugural tournament in Uruguay in 1930. The ball was designed and produced by an Argentine sports goods manufacturer. It was made of brown leather and had 12 panels held together by laces.

The Tiento was a rather bulky and sturdy ball weighing 380 grams, which was quite heavy compared to modern balls. It was also relatively small, with a 22cm diameter. The ball's surface was relatively smooth and had no unique designs or patterns. The Argentinians handled the ball pretty well. They led 2-1 at half-time. Hosts Uruguay supplied the second-half ball (the 'T-Model', which was larger and heavier) and won 4–2, becoming the first World Cup champions.

In those days, the sections of a ball were stitched together by hand. The rubber bladder was then inflated to the approved pressure, and the slit in the leather was laced up tight. The main objection to this ball was that when players were heading back a powerfully driven ball, it could be excruciating if they made contact with the ball's lacing. Also, on wet days, the ball grew unpleasantly heavy as the leather soaked up the water and became cakes with mud.  

1934 - Federale 102

As a result of many trials and experiments to solve the problems of the Tiento, Luis Polo, Antonio Tossolini and Juan Valbonesi, created in the city of Bell Ville in the southeast of the Province of Cordoba (Argentina), a new ball without a thread or invisible seam, which initially received the name of 'Superball', settling the tentativeness.

Manufacturer ECAS (Ente Centrale Approvvigionamento Sportivi) from Rome acquired Tossolini's and Valbonesi's concept en created the Federale 102. The ball was used in most 1934 World Cup matches, played in Italy and won by Italy.  

The Federale was composed of 13 polygons tightly stitched together by hand. Thanks to the water-resistant coating, it was lighter and more durable than previous balls. The ball also had a rubber bladder to help it retain air, making it more consistent in flight.

ECAS, one of the numerous fascist organizations of the time, was under the jurisdiction of the company of the championship organizing committee. The ball's name may have referred to the Roman Empire. In 102 AC, emperor Trajanus won the Dacian war, expanding the empire's boundaries again. The country of Dacia (Romania) became a Roman province, embodying the federal state Mussolini hoped to regain in the 1920s and 30s.

The advertising campaign dedicated to Federale 102 tried to convince Italian athletes to use the national equipment instead of imported. The annals of soccer history show that players considered it a relief to play with the ball. But that may have also been a propaganda thing. ;-)

1938 - Allen

A Paris-based manufacturer had the privilege of being the first company to be allowed to brand their balls when the World Cup came to France in 1938.

Allen 1938 World Cup ball

This was much the same ball as the Federale 102 in Italy. The cotton laces stayed, as did the 13th panel they were sewn onto (previously, balls had usually been made up of 12). The edges of the panels on the Allen ball were more rounded, and the ball's surface was treated with a water-resistant coating to make it more durable in wet conditions. The Allen started a trend that would continue when the sport resumed in full following the Second World War.

1950 - Duplo T

The Duplo T was the official match ball of the 1950 FIFA World Cup in Brazil. The Superball was revolutionary in many ways. Its unique, laceless construction provides a more consistent playing surface. The innovative design made the ball more aerodynamic and less likely to deform during play.

The ball was radically different from its predecessors. One could now inflate the balls with a pump and needle valve through a virtually invisible hole, saving the inflating procedure a lot of time and effort. As with other precursors, the ball was leather, made by hand, and consisted of 12 panels, more curved than ever.

For the first time, marketing was involved too. FIFA allowed to print the ball's name on the ball - as an exception. (In the next four championships, such liberty was not allowed). So anyone could notice that games were played with the Superball Duplo T.

The Duplo T was used in all 26 matches of the 1954 World Cup, including the final, which West Germany won. The ball was considered a significant advancement in football technology.

1954 - Swiss World Champion

The World Cup headed for Switzerland in 1954, meaning a Swiss ball manufactured by Basel-based company Kost Sport. Their 'Swiss World Champion' ball took another step forward by adopting an 18-panel structure, with the panels interlocking in a zig-zag pattern. For decades, that shape would be used in some (merely Mitre) balls.

The combination of that structure and a brighter yellow colour makes this perhaps the first ball that begins to resemble somewhat the models that would be used through the 1980s and 1990s. The ball was better visible during rainy matches where the pitch contained mud.  

Annoyingly for Kost Sport, FIFA - seemingly randomly - reintroduced their rule prohibiting any branding from appearing on the ball at this World Cup.

1958 - Top-Star

This was the first year that FIFA selected its ball based on competition. De decision of whose ball to use was decided in one day. The winner in the randomized trial of more than 100 balls was a Swedish company called Sydsvenska Laderoch Remfabriken. It supplied the Top Star, notable for its waterproof waxed surface and 24 panels.

During the World Cup in Sweden, three ball models were used. The only difference was the colour: brown, yellow, and white. The white model was used in the final stage of the championship, specifically in the semifinals and in the third and fourth-position match between France versus Germany.  

1962 - The Crack

Chilli hosted the FIFA World Cup that year. The tournament was notable for the low number of spectators for the games outside Santiago. The goalscoring average for the first time was under three goals per game, primarily due to the complex play. Infamous was the match between Chile and Italy, the Battle of Santiago.

Pelé, the 21-year-old rising star of Brazil, hid a groin injury to still play. He assisted in the first game and scored a beautiful goal after outplaying the Mexican defence. In the next round, three days later against Czechoslovakia, he shot at the post. When he tried to catch the returning ball and extended his leg, he felt something snap and could not possibly continue. He was out of the tournament. His teammate Garrincha became the game's big star and top scorer, and Brazil won its second world title, although this one was much less enjoyable for Pelé.

"The Crack" was the ball's name. It was unique in that its surface was composed of 18 irregular polygonal panels, with hexagonal curved and rectangular shapes, all joined together by manual sewing as if it were a giant puzzle. With the new latex valve, the air was retained longer. The ball maintained an excellent spherical shape. The ball eyed elegantly, but the quality of the coloured coating was poor and didn't last long. Especially the European teams did not like the ball at all.

Pelé during the World Cup in Chile with the Crack at his feet.

1966 - Slazenger Challenge 4-Star

Football was coming home, by all means. England showed what football is about. The ball for the 1966 World Cup in England was selected through a blind test, as had been the case in 1958, and was the first ball to be manufactured by a major modern (English) sports brand: Slazenger, better known for their racket-sports equipment.

The Challenge 4-Star was similar to the Swedish Top Star but had 25 panels instead of 24.

The process of testing and development for the 1966 tournament was by far the most advanced in World Cup history to that point. Four hundred footballs in three different colours were requested for the finals, while each competing national association was sent the ball six months in advance of the tournament to have a chance to get used to it.

The home-field advantage expired, creating a level playing field for the first time.

1970 - Telstar

The Adidas Telstar ball used during the 1970 FIFA World Cup in Mexico was iconic and influential in the sport's history. It was the first World Cup ball to feature a design with black pentagons and white hexagons. It became a distinctive pattern for subsequent soccer balls.

Here are some key features and information about the Adidas Telstar ball:

  1. Design: The Telstar ball was designed and manufactured by Adidas, and its unique black-and-white pattern was intended to improve visibility for players and spectators, especially on black-and-white televisions, which were common at the time.
  2. Name: The name "Telstar" was inspired by the Telstar communication satellite, launched in 1962 and significantly transmitted television signals internationally.
  3. Construction: The leather ball featured 32 hand-stitched panels, with 12 black pentagons and 20 white hexagons. This construction provided good aerodynamics and stability during matches.
  4. Adidas, a German sports equipment manufacturer, was the official supplier of the ball for the 1970 World Cup. This began a long-standing partnership between Adidas and FIFA, the world soccer governing body.
  5. Significance: The Telstar ball gained immense popularity due to its distinctive appearance. The design became an iconic soccer symbol and has been used in various iterations in subsequent World Cups. It became synonymous with the sport and has been cherished by soccer fans worldwide.

1974 - Telstar Durlast

The Telstar Durlast was the first ball to use seam-sealing technology to make it more waterproof.

1978 - Tango

The Adidas Tango ball used during Argentina's 1978 FIFA World Cup was another significant and memorable soccer ball. The design moved away from the traditional panel construction. It was the first ball to have an innovative 20-panel design, where the panels were connected by interlocking shapes, giving it a distinctive and recognizable look. The name "Tango" was chosen to reflect the Argentine tango dance's vibrant and passionate style, resonating with the game's spirit and the host nation, Argentina.

The Tango ball was made of synthetic materials, combining synthetic leather and polyurethane foam. This construction provided improved durability, performance, and water resistance. The Tango ball had a predominantly white base colour with black and grey details. It featured bold and contrasting graphics that helped players and spectators track the ball's movement on the field.

The Adidas Tango ball of 1978 holds a special place in the hearts of soccer fans and is often associated with the captivating matches and players of the 1978 World Cup. The unique design and innovative construction set a new standard for soccer balls and impacted the game as any other ball.

1982 - Tango Espana

The Tango Espana was an improved version of the 78-Tango with a softer and more durable cover.

1986 - Azteca

The 1986 World Cup in Mexico had its premiere: the introduction of another iconic Adidas product. The Azteca was the first ball primarily made of synthetic materials, with a dimpled cover to improve grip and control. The ball was more durable and water-resistant than previous leather balls. The new technology allowed consistent performance in different weather conditions and other playing surfaces. The Azteca was also the first ball to feature a design with bright colours and graphics, making it even more visible on television broadcasts. Since then, synthetic materials have become the norm for World Cup balls, with each tournament featuring new designs and technologies to improve performance and visibility.

The hand of God (formerly known as Maradona) could tell you exactly how the ball felt.

1990 - Etrusco Unico

The Etrusco Unico had a unique design inspired by ancient Italian culture.

1994 - Questra

The Questra had a butyl bladder for better air retention and a textured surface for improved grip.

1998 - Tricolore

The Tricolore had a revolutionary tri-colour design inspired by the French flag.

2002 - Fevernova

The Fevernova had a unique construction with three layers of foam for improved flight stability.

2006 - Teamgeist

The Teamgeist had a 14-panel design for better accuracy and control.

2010 - Jabulani

The Adidas Jabulani was the official match ball used during the 2010 FIFA World Cup held in South Africa. The ball is widely regarded as the most controversial football ever made due to its unique design and flight characteristics. The Jabulani featured a radically different design compared to its predecessors. It had only eight thermally bonded 3D panels, which reduced the number of seams on the ball.

With the revolutionary technology called "Grip'n'Groove", Adidas aimed to enhance grip, stability, and aerodynamics in various weather conditions. However, players and goalkeepers heavily criticized the Jabulani's flight characteristics during the tournament. The ball was truly round, resulting in an unpredictable trajectory and a tendency to swerve and dip, making it difficult to predict and control.

Several players and coaches, including renowned goalkeepers, expressed dissatisfaction. They claimed that its flight path made it challenging to save shots and caused unexpected movements, affecting the overall quality of the matches. Brazialian's Julio Cesar compared the Jabulani to the cheap balls sold in supermarkets, while Spanish goalie Iker Casillas called it "horrible". It was said to affect passing and shooting, and a dull, cagey group stage brought the ball in for even more criticism.

Despite the controversies surrounding its flight characteristics, the Adidas Jabulani remains an iconic ball due to its association with the 2010 World Cup, the first held on the African continent. "Jabulani" is a Zulu word that translates to "celebrate" or "rejoice" in English, symbolizing the spirit of the tournament being held in South Africa.

2014 - Brazuca

The Jabulani had been something of a PR nightmare for Adidas, so for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, they released what they claimed was the most-tested ball ever.

It was called the Brazuca, a slang word for 'Brazilian' which, according to FIFA, describes "national pride in the Brazilian way of life". It features multi-coloured ribbons that mimic popular Brazilian 'wish bands'.

Once again, there was a reduction in the number of panels on the ball, with the Brazuca having just six.

It was sent worldwide to players, teams and national associations for extensive testing and feedback before the tournament. Adidas even sent a disguised version out to be used in specific league matches.

The Brazuca attracted much less controversy and was adopted by several club leagues, including the Bundesliga and MLS.

2018 - Telstar 18

Telstar 18 was the official match ball of the 2018 World Cup in Russia. It was a modern interpretation of the original Telstar, with a textured cover for improved aerodynamics and control. The Adidas Telstar embedded an NFC chip – the first time it's ever been used in an Official Match Ball – making it the most innovative World Cup ball to date. Furthermore, it was the first tournament ball since 1994 to be predominantly black and white. The only colour was the gold logos printed on the white surface of the ball, with the black sections giving a gradient mosaic effect.

Like the Brazuca, the Telstar 18 had just six panels, but they were arranged in an entirely new shape and gave the visual effect of being more like the 32-panel 1970 ball.

The name of the ball was revealed on November 9, 2017, by Lionel Messi. The Telstar 18 pays homage to Adidas's first World Cup match ball. A slightly different version, called the 'Telstar Mechta', was introduced for the competition's knockout stage. The colourway for the Mechta (meaning 'dream' or 'ambition' in Russian) included red and black on a white background.

Nevertheless, the ball still drew criticism, with Spain internationals David de Gea and Pepe Reina claiming it was 'strange' and more difficult to grip than other balls. Goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen, on the other hand, conceded that goalkeepers have to get used to it.

At the 2018 Russia-United States summit, Russian President Vladimir Putin gifted a Telstar Мechta to U.S. President Donald Trump, whose national team was not qualified for the tournament. The ball, which included the standard chip and transmission devices, incited a political controversy within the U.S. over fears of spying.

2022 - Al Rihla

In 2022, the World Cup headed to Qatar, and Al Rihla was the official match ball produced by Adidas, inspired by sand dunes.

The design differs somewhat from previous World Cup balls, with 20 panels used (a jump of 14 from the Telstar 18). However, speed and accuracy remain core principles for the manufacturers, with Al Rihla built to maintain high flight speeds.

The inspiration for the colour scheme of the Adidas Al Rihla official match ball is the "colours of the Qatari flag and traditionally white Arab clothes". With a CRT Core and textured 'Speedshell' skin, Adidas have sought to ensure the ball suits the needs of an increasingly fast-paced game.

Adidas' Al Rihla

Al Rihla incorporated Adidas' Connected Ball Technology. This groundbreaking feature aimed to assist the officials by providing real-time, precise ball data to support quick and accurate offside decisions, bolstering the VAR team's capabilities.

The Al Rihla has taken a step further in innovation. At the heart of this technology lies the new Suspension System, discreetly embedded within the ball. It houses a 500Hz inertial measurement unit (IMU) motion sensor, offering unparalleled insights into every aspect of the ball's movement. Remarkably, this innovation does not affect the ball's performance, nor is it noticeable to the players. The sensor operates using a rechargeable battery that can be conveniently charged through induction.

Johannes Holzmüller, Football Technology & Innovation Director at FIFA, expressed his excitement for this milestone achievement. After three years of dedicated research and testing by FIFA and Adidas, he believes this technology will provide the best possible experience for referees, teams, players, and fans at the upcoming World Cup in Qatar. Implementing semi-automated offside technology, including connected ball technology, promises to showcase its impact during the FIFA World Cup 2022.

2026 -?

What will the 2026 World Cup ball in the Americas, Canada and Mexico look like? What innovation may we expect?

Adidas nor FIFA does not want to say anything about it yet.

That's why we asked Chat GPT for the possible name for the ball of the most beautiful soccer tournament, in which 48 teams will participate.

ChatGPT: An excellent name for the World Cup ball for 2026 could be "Lumina."

Me: Why Lumina?

Chat: "Lumina" is a fitting name for the World Cup ball for 2026 because it evokes a sense of brightness, illumination, and radiance. It symbolizes the energy, excitement, and spotlight surrounding the tournament. The name suggests that the ball will shine on the world stage, capturing the attention and imagination of players and fans alike. Additionally, "Lumina" has a modern and futuristic feel, aligning with the technological advancements and innovations expected in soccer.

Me: Truly, a lovely suggestion.

Chat: Thank you! I'm glad you liked the suggestion. If you have any more questions or need further assistance, feel free to ask.