Watched by over 3.2 billion people all over world, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) World Cup has captured popular imagination since 1930, when the first tournament was held in Uruguay. Along with the sport, the main element of the game i.e. the ball has undergone dramatic transformation over the years. Every four years, the FIFA World Cup is played with a new ball. That makes it unique—after all, few other sports reinvent the wheel every four years. From balls inflated through tie-up laces, a half-time ball change that influenced a final to the most hated model, here’s the fascinating history of the FIFA World Cup ball.
It all began way back in 1930 when there was no official ball for the first World Cup. The iconic Telstar was Adidas’ first World Cup ball, made of 32 separate panels to give it the roundest sphere for its time. Before the final match, Argentina and Uruguay argued over who would supply the ball and so they agreed to change it at half-time. This may have had a rather substantial bearing on the outcome of the game as the Argentinean team found themselves at a loss post halftime as the Uruguayans’ larger, heavier ball was introduced.
1958 was the first year when FIFA selected its ball based on a competition. The winner in the randomized trial of more than 100 balls was a Swedish company called Sydsvenska Laderoch Remfabriken, who supplied a ball called Top Star notable for its waterproof waxed surface. The 1962 World Cup tournament was played with a ball was known as ‘The Crack’. It was unique in the sense that its surface was composed of 18 irregular polygonal shapes, which gave it a complicated look.
1970 saw the era of Adidas, which to this day is the official supplier for the tournament. Designed to be television friendly, that year’s FIFA football called ‘the Telstar’ – an amalgamation of the words: Television and star. This was a reference to the rising popularity of television sets and America’s rocket launch. The construction of the ball was innovative as well. Its 32 separate panels gave it the roundest sphere for its time, allowing for improved ball control, while its enduring black-and-white pattern was said to improve visibility on black-and-white TV sets.
The new construction set the standard for the next three decades of World Cup balls, with leather eventually giving way to synthetics. In 1978, Adidas introduced a ball called ‘The Tango’ that’s been described as “the most popular ball in the entire world”. Though it was composed of the same 32 panels as its predecessor, Adidas’ designers printed it with a unique triangular design that looked extremely cool in motion—hence its namesake, a dance. Following the popularity of this ball, Adidas didn’t change ball technology much apart from introducing design elements which represented the culture of the host country such as Aztec symbology for a tournament hosted by Argentina.
The 2018 official football aka the ‘Jabulani’ is one of the most-hated balls of all time. With eight panels and a patterned surface that was said to improve its aerodynamics, it was supposed to build on the success of its predecessor. Instead, players were bitingly critical, saying it was unpredictable, a “shameful” “disaster,” comparing it to a cheap ball one would find at a supermarket.
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. The Brazuca attracted much less controversy and was adopted by a number of club leagues, including the Bundesliga and MLS.
For the 2018 World Cup in Russia, Adidas released the Telstar 18 which is a recreation of the first Adidas ball used at a World Cup – the classic 1970 Telstar, and is the first tournament ball since 1994 to be predominantly black and white. The only colour on the Telstar 18 is the gold Adidas, Telstar and World Cup logos printed on the white surface of the ball, with the black sections given a gradient, mosaic effect.
The difference between the leather bladders of the 1930s and the high-performance materials of today are pretty stunning. What do you think of this fascinating design history of the FIFA ball? Tell us in the comments below!