Since the first tournament in Uruguay in 1930, the world cup balls used in football’s biggest matches have undergone dramatic changes.
In many ways, the World Cup’s history mirrors professional football’s evolution.
That is evident in the evolution of the World Cup balls, which have progressed from a leather-bound pig’s bladder to the high-tech, synthetic spheres we see sold and marketed around the world today.
The world cup balls have also had an impact on the course of World Cup history.
Here is GOAL’s history of official World Cup football, from a half-time ball change that influenced a final to the “supermarket” model despised by goalkeepers.
T-Model and Tiento (1930)
Interestingly, the first World Cup, held in Uruguay in 1930, had no official ball. Argentina and Uruguay argued about who would supply the ball before the final and agreed to switch it at half-time.
It could have had a significant impact on the game’s outcome. Argentina led 2-1 at the half before the Uruguayans introduced a larger, heavier ball, and the hosts promptly scored three unanswered goals to claim the title.
Argentina’s ball was known as the ‘Tiento’ (shown without laces), while Uruguay’s was known as the ‘T-Model’ (pictured with laces).
Even identical balls were unique at this time because they were sewn and inflated by hand. They would also become heavier if it rained.
102 Federdale (1934)
The second World Cup was held in Italy, which was under the dictatorship of Benito Mussolini at the time. The Federale 102 ball was made by his government, but other balls from England were also used in the tournament.
One of the most significant innovations was the substitution of cotton laces for leather laces, which were much softer and more forgiving for players heading the ball.
However, because balls were made by hand at the time, with the skill of the inflator determining how spherical the finished product was, quality control was difficult.
Before each game, the two captains would be shown a couple of balls and asked to select their favorite. As a result, much to Mussolini’s chagrin, the final game was played with an English ball.
Fortunately, the Italian players were able to win the World Cup for the first time.
When the World Cup came to France in 1938, Allen, a Paris-based manufacturer, was the first to be allowed to brand its balls.
This ball was similar to the Federale 102 in Italy. The cotton laces remained, as did the 13th panel to which they were sewn (previously, balls had usually been made up of 12).
The most noticeable difference was that 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.
However, the Allen ball did not completely dominate the tournament. Other 12- and 18-panel models have been photographed, with the issue being that poor ball inflation could make it unreliable.
DUPLO T (1950)
Due to World War II, there was a 12-year wait for the next World Cup after the 1938 tournament, which resulted in a significant advance in ball production.
The big breakthrough for the 1950 tournament, however, had been made in Argentina in the early 1930s and was simply waiting to be cleared for use at a FIFA competition.
For several years, this ball was known as the ‘Superval,’ and it was later renamed the ‘Superball’ after the company behind it expanded into Brazil.
By creating a completely closed leather sphere without laces, the innovation eliminated the need for skilled inflation experts. The balls were inflated with a pump and needle through a tiny valve, which is still in use today.
The Duplo T was the Superball model used at the 1950 World Cup, and because of the consistency with which it could be inflated, it was the first model to be used uniformly across all matches at a single tournament.
World Champion of Switzerland (1954)
In 1954, the World Cup was held in Switzerland, which meant the Basel-based company Kost Sport made a Swiss ball.
Their ‘Swiss World Champion’ world cup balls advanced further by adopting an 18-panel structure, with the panels interlocking in a zig-zag pattern. For decades, that shape would be used in some balls.
The combination of that structure and a brighter yellow color makes this possibly the first ball that begins to resemble the models used in the 1980s and 1990s.
Unfortunately for Kost Sport, FIFA reintroduced their rule prohibiting any branding from appearing on the ball at this World Cup, seemingly at random.
The Best (1958)
FIFA took its first steps toward opening the competition to supply the tournament ball for the 1958 World Cup in Sweden.
They did so by inviting manufacturers to send in unbranded balls with an envelope identifying the company from which they came.
A lawyer collected all 102 entries and assigned each one a number. Then, four members of FIFA’s organizing committee and two Swedish football officials gathered to inspect and test the balls.
They had narrowed the field down to ten by lunchtime and had chosen No. 55 as the official ball of the 1958 World Cup a few hours later.
The winning ball, known as the Top Star and manufactured by an Angelholm company, was the first to have 24 panels used in a World Cup. Each team was given 30, with the option to purchase more from Brazil.
In some ways, the Top Star was the first ball to be used at more than one World Cup. More on that shortly.
There was the Crack before the Jabulani.
This was the ball chosen for the first World Cup in Chile in 1962, and it was widely panned.
The Crack, designed by Chilean firm Custodio Zamora, had 18 irregularly divided panels; some were hexagonal, some rectangular, and so on, and all were manually sewed together.
It was not well received by all teams, particularly those from Europe. The Top Star ball, which was used in the 1958 World Cup, had become extremely popular in Europe, and 100 were shipped over and used when it was determined that the Crack ball was insufficient.
However, the Crack introduced an important innovation in the form of a latex inflation valve, which was later adopted by many other models.
4-Star Challenge (1966)
The ball for the 1966 World Cup in England was chosen in a blind test, 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 selection process, which was made at the FIFA Bureau meeting in London, had any prior knowledge of the 111 balls submitted.
Forty-eight failed to meet specifications, and after the remaining field was reduced to eight, two more failed to maintain the required standard over a longer testing period.
Slazenger’s Challenge 4-Star ball, better known for its racket-sports equipment, was the eventual winner. It was similar to the Top Star, but it had 25 panels rather than 24.
The testing and development process for the 1966 World Cup was by far the most advanced in World Cup history at the time. 400 footballs in three different colors were requested for the finals, and each competing national association was sent the ball six months before the tournament to get used to it.
In 1970, perhaps the most dramatic change in the history of the World Cup ball occurred.
That was the arrival of Adidas, whom FIFA tasked with designing the ball for the tournament in Mexico after their success with the European Cup in 1968 and the Olympic Games, also in Mexico, shortly after.
As a result, Adidas received support from the Mexican Football Federation.
The Telstar, designed by Adidas to improve visibility on television during the first World Cup to be broadcast globally, would become an iconic ball.
It was not the first black-and-white, 32-panel ball; 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 on the trend and take it global.
Duralast Telstar (1974)
The Telstar was such a success that it was only slightly modified and not completely redeveloped for the 1974 tournament in West Germany, Adidas’ home country.
The ‘Telstar Durlast’ was renamed, but the ‘Duralast’ part was still present on the 1970 ball. This refers to the coating applied to the ball to protect the leather and ensure its durability in wet weather.
The 1974 ball was given a thicker coat of ‘Durlast,’ which gave 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.
The Telstar Durlast became a big seller as a result, with the same ball used on the pitch available in stores. In addition, the brilliance of Johan Cruyff and the Netherlands in that tournament has contributed to it becoming yet another classic design.
Adidas introduced the Tango in 1978, named after Argentina’s famous dance.
It went on to become one of the most popular balls ever made, but Adidas was clearly nervous about releasing their second World Cup design, so they produced a number of ‘Telstar 1978’ balls as a backup plan.
On the other hand, the Tango took off, abandoning the Telstars black panels in favor of an all-white base with black triangles arranged in a circular pattern, creating a certain effect when the ball rolled across the grass.
It quickly sold out and became the most recognizable ball in the world.
Aside from its iconic design, part of the nostalgia associated with the Tango stems from the fact that it marked the beginning of the end for the leather ball.
Espana Tango (1982)
Adidas didn’t mess around with a winning formula when it introduced the Tango Espana for the 1982 World Cup in Spain.
The Tango Espana improved the ball’s water resistance and durability, and it no longer required the Duralast coating because the seams were now welded as well as sewed together.
In 1984, a water-repellent polyurethane layer was added, bringing us one step closer to the death above of the leather ball – more on that in the following section.
Aside from that, the most noticeable difference was the addition of Adidas’ three-leaf trefoil logo.
The Azteca is not a particularly memorable ball in and of itself, but it is crucial in the history of World Cup balls for two reasons.
To begin, Adidas, having reused the Tango in Spain, designed a ball specific to the host country, this time Mexico. From now on, that tradition will be carried on at every tournament.
More importantly, this was the first time a synthetic ball was used in a World Cup.
The appeal of synthetic balls was obvious: they returned to their original shape immediately after being kicked and performed better in almost every aspect, including water resistance and durability, than leather balls.
Aztec architecture and murals inspired the Azteca and Adidas’ trademark triangle patterns.
Unico Etrusco (1990)
Continuing the theme of paying homage to the host country, the world cup balls for Italia 90 were named after the Etruscans, an ancient Italian civilization.
The usual Tango-style ‘triads’ were decorated with the heads of Etruscan lions, a popular subject of fine art at the time.
Following the 1986 World Cup, Adidas continued to work on the materials and properties of their fully synthetic ball, with the Etrusco Unico being a progression of the Azteca.
In fact, aside from the fact that the original Tangos were made of leather, there would be very little change in the appearance of the official World Cup ball between 1978 and 1998.
Adidas debuted the Questra for the first World Cup held in the United States.
This time, the theme was space travel, which was reflected in both the ball’s design and the attempt to make it the most futuristic, high-performance model used at a World Cup to date.
FIFA hoped to spice things up after a fairly dull tournament in Italy.
The main difference was a layer of polystyrene foam on the outside of the ball, which was supposed to make it softer to the touch and easier to control while also increasing its speed.
The impact was palpable. In the quarter-finals, no team kept a clean sheet. Only three of the sixteen participants did so in the first knockout round. The final was one of only three 0-0 draws in the entire tournament, but it was the highest-scoring World Cup since 1982, with some spectacular goals.
The World Cup was the first broadcast in color in 1970, but it wasn’t until 1998 that the ball followed suit.
The Adidas Tricolore, first introduced for France 98, was the first multicolored ball. The Tango triads were retained, but as the name suggests, they were given a red, blue, and white flair to match the French flag.
There were performance gains, with the foam layer introduced in 1994 being further developed to make the ball softer and faster.
The Tricolore’s most notable feature was undoubtedly its design and its established precedent.
The introduction of color opened Adidas’ eyes to a world of new possibilities, and the traditional Tango pattern would be abandoned at the 2002 World Cup.
Adidas began experimenting with the Fevernova, which was created for the 2002 World Cup in South Korea and Japan.
They began by abandoning the traditional Tango look favoring a blank ball with larger green, gold, and red triangular patterns.
However, despite the fact that it exceeded FIFA’s weight limit, Adidas continued to innovate in terms of the ball’s technical aspects, with the Fevernova being noted by many players for feeling lighter than previous models.
David Beckham, an Adidas ambassador who helped test the Fevernova, agreed with the manufacturer’s claim that this was the most precise ball ever made.
In contrast, Gianluigi Buffon described it as a “crazy bouncing ball.”
Teamgeist is German for “team spirit,” a nod to the hosts’ tradition of collective strength over individual brilliance.
In 2006, the most notable change was introducing a 14-panel design with fewer seams, which was intended to make the ball rounder and more consistent. It performed better than any other ball on the market at the time of its release.
However, not everyone was pleased.
When the ball was in the air, some players complained of a ‘knuckleball’ effect, claiming that its flight was too unpredictable. This was demonstrated in the World Cup’s opening game when Philipp Lahm and Torsten Frings scored spectacular goals that dipped and swerved in the air.
Adidas produced a custom ball for each tournament match, printed with the fixture details, and also introduced a special gold version – the ‘Teamgeist Berlin’ – for the final.
Things got really interesting in 2010.
Because of its fame, the Jabulani may be the most famous ball ever made. Adidas attempted to create a more rounder ball than ever before by reducing the number of panels from 14 on the Teamgeist to just eight on the Jabulani.
Goalkeepers were outraged because it was so unpredictable.
Julio Cesar compared the Jabulani to supermarket balls, while Iker Casillas called it “horrible.” It was said to affect both passing and shooting, and a dull, cagey group stage drew even more criticism.
Adidas responded by claiming that the ball had been tested for six months and citing praise from Adidas-sponsored players such as Frank Lampard and Michael Ballack.
In the end, it took a NASA study to solve the problem. Finally, because of its smoother surface and fewer seams, the Jabulani began to ‘knuckle’ (move in the air) faster than previous balls.
That sounds like a good thing in theory, 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 for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, they released what they claimed was the most-tested ball ever.
It was known as the Brazuca, a slang term for ‘Brazilian,’ and according to FIFA, it represents “national pride in the Brazilian way of life.” It has multicolored ribbons that look like popular Brazilian ‘wish bands.’
The number of panels on the ball was reduced once more, with the Brazuca having only six.
It was distributed to players, teams, and national associations worldwide for extensive testing and feedback before the tournament. Adidas even sent out a disguised version to be used in league matches.
The Brazuca sparked far less debate and was adopted by a number of club leagues, including the Bundesliga and MLS.
18 Telstar (2018)
Adidas released the Telstar 18 – the official match ball of the 2018 World Cup in Russia – in November 2017.
It was the first tournament ball to be predominantly black and white since 1994, and it was a recreation of the first Adidas ball used at a World Cup – the classic 1970 Telstar.
The gold Adidas, Telstar, and World Cup logos were printed on the white surface of the ball, with the black sections giving a gradient mosaic effect.
The Telstar 18 had only six panels, like the Brazuca, but they were arranged in an entirely new shape, making it more like the 32-panel 1970 ball.
For the knockout stage of the competition, a slightly modified version known as the ‘Telstar Mechta’ was introduced. The Mechta (meaning “dream” or “ambition” in Russian) came in red and black on a white background.
In the run-up to the tournament, the ball was extensively tested and used in a variety of youth competitions (with a different design), 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 harder to grip than other balls.
Rihla Al Rihla (2022)
The World Cup will be held in Qatar in 2022, and Adidas will produce the official match ball, Al Rihla.
The design differs slightly from previous World Cup balls, with 20 panels used (a 14-panel increase from the Telstar 18), but speed and accuracy remain key principles for the manufacturers, with Al Rihla built to maintain high flight speeds.
Adidas has attempted to ensure that the world cup balls meet the needs of an increasingly fast-paced game by using a CRT Core and textured ‘Speedshell’ skin.
Like many of its predecessors, Al Rihla, which means “the journey” in Arabic, incorporates elements of the host country into the design, with the colors and motifs paying homage to the Qatar flag and architecture.