World Cup balls: From the Tango to the Jabulani

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The balls used in football's biggest matches have undergone a dramatic transformation since the first tournament in Uruguay back in 1930

The history of the World Cup in many ways tells the story of the evolution of professional football itself.

That is visible in the development of the World Cup ball, which has gone from a leather-bound pig's bladder to the high-tech, synthetic spheres we see sold in stores and marketed around the world today.

The ball has also played its part in setting the course of World Cup history.

From a half-time ball change that influenced a final to the "supermarket" model despised by goalkeepers, here is Goal's history of the official World Cup football.


Tiento & T-Model (1930)


There was no official ball for the first World Cup, held in Uruguay in 1930. Before the final, Argentina and Uruguay argued over who would supply the ball and so agreed to change it at half-time. T-Model 1930 World Cup ball Tiento 1930 World Cup ball

It may have had a rather substantial bearing on the outcome of the game. Argentina were 2-1 up at the break before the Uruguayans' larger, heavier ball was introduced, and the hosts promptly fired in three unanswered goals to be crowned world champions.

Argentina's ball was called the 'Tiento' (pictured without laces), while Uruguay's was a 'T-Model' (pictured with laces).

Even balls of the same type were each unique at this time, though, as they were sewn and inflated by hand. They would also get heavier in the rain.

Photo credit: Oldelpaso / Wikipedia


Federdale 102 (1934)


The second World Cup was held in Italy, which at the time was under the dictatorship of Benito Mussolini. His government produced the Federale 102 ball, though others from England were also used at the tournament. Federale 102 1934 World Cup ball

One of the most important innovations it featured was the replacement of leather laces with cotton ones, which were much softer and more forgiving for players heading the ball.

But the nature of the way balls were made at this time - by hand, with the skill of the inflater determining how spherical the finished product was - meant that quality control was difficult.

That meant that the two captains would be shown a couple of balls before each game and asked to choose which one they preferred. As a result - much to the dismay of Mussolini, you would imagine - the final was played with an English ball.

Fortunately, it was good enough for the Italian players to win the World Cup for the first time.

Photo credit: MDBR / Wikipedia


Allen (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 that they were sewn on to (previously, balls had usually been made up of 12).

The most significant difference was that the edges of the panels on the Allen ball were more rounded than the Federale, which was a trend that would continue when the sport resumed in full following the Second World War.

Once again, though, the Allen ball did not completely dominate the tournament. Other 12 and 18-panel models have been spotted in photographs, with the issue again being that poor inflation of the ball could make it unreliable.

Photo credit: MDBR / Wikipedia


DUPLO T (1950)


There was a 12-year wait for the next World Cup after the 1938 tournament due to World War II, and a substantial advance in the production of balls was the result. World Cup ball

In actual fact, though, the big breakthrough for the 1950 tournament had been made in Argentina back in the early 1930s and was simply waiting to be cleared for use at a FIFA competition.

This ball had been used in the Argentine leagues for several years and was called the 'Superval', later changed to 'Superball' when the company behind it had branched out into Brazil.

The innovation was the elimination of the need for skilled inflation experts by creating a completely closed leather sphere without laces. The balls were inflated with a pump and needle through a tiny valve - similar to those still used to this day.

The Superball model used at the World Cup in 1950 was the Duplo T and the consistency with which it could be inflated meant that it was the first model to be used uniformly across all matches at a single tournament.

Photo credit: MDBR / Wikipedia


Swiss World Champion (1954)


The World Cup headed for Switzerland in 1954, which meant a Swiss ball manufactured by Basel-based company Kost Sport. Swiss World Champion 1954 World Cup ball

Their 'Swiss World Champion' ball took another big step forward by adopting an 18-panel structure, with the panels interlocking together in a zig-zag pattern. That shape would be used in some balls for decades to come.

The combination of that structure and a brighter yellow colour makes this perhaps the first ball that begins to somewhat resemble the models that would be used through the 1980s and 1990s.

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

Photo credit: MDBR / Wikipedia


Top Star (1958)


For the 1958 World Cup in Sweden, FIFA took its first steps into opening up competition to supply the tournament ball. Top Star 1958 World Cup ball

They did so by inviting manufacturers to send in unbranded balls along with an envelope stating the company they had come from.

A lawyer received all 102 entries and gave them each a number. Then, four members of FIFA's organising committee as well as two Swedish football officials gathered to examine the balls and test them.

They narrowed the field down to 10 by lunchtime and a couple of hours later, had selected No. 55 as the official ball of the 1958 World Cup.

The winning ball, called the Top Star and made by a company from Angelholm, was the first used at a World Cup to have 24 panels. Each team was supplied with 30, while Brazil took up their option of purchasing more.

The Top Star was, in one way, the first ball to be used at more than one World Cup. More on that in a moment.

Photo credit: MDBR / Wikipedia


Crack (1962)


Before the Jabulani, there was the Crack. Crack 1962 World Cup ball

This was the ball selected for the first World Cup in Chile in 1962, and it was not universally well received.

The Crack, made by Chilean company Custodio Zamora, had 18 panels but it's defining feature was that they were irregularly divided; some were hexagonal, some rectangular and so on and all were manually sewed together.

Not all teams liked it - especially the European ones. The Top Star ball used at the 1958 World Cup had become hugely popular in Europe and 100 were shipped over and used when it was decided the Crack ball was not up to the task.

The Crack did feature one important innovation, though, in its introduction of a latex inflation valve that would be adopted by many other models afterwards.

Photo credit: MDBR / Wikipedia


Challenge 4-Star (1966)


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 brand. Challenge 4-Star 1966 World Cup ball

The English Football Association took several measures to ensure that no one involved in the selection process - which was made at the meeting of the FIFA Bureau in London - could have any prior knowledge of the 111 balls sent in.

Forty-eight did not meet specifications and once the remaining field had been narrowed down to eight, two more were found to fail to maintain the required standard over a longer period of testing.

In the end, the winner was the Challenge 4-Star ball made by Slazenger, better known for their racket-sports equipment. It was similar to the 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.

Photo credit: MDBR / Wikipedia


Telstar (1970)


In 1970 came perhaps the most dramatic development in the history of the World Cup ball. Adidas Telstar 1970 World Cup ball

That was the arrival of Adidas, who FIFA decided to task with designing the ball for the tournament in Mexico following the success they had enjoyed doing so for the European Cup in 1968 and the Olympic Games, also in Mexico, soon after.

As a result, Adidas had the Mexican Football Federation advocating for them.

Adidas created the Telstar, which - with its black-and-white panels to improve visibility on television at the first World Cup to be broadcast worldwide - would become an iconic ball.

It was not the first black-and-white, 32-panel ball - as had been the case with the first laceless World Cup ball, the Duplo T in 1950, the design had been around for some time in certain European countries.

The Telstar, though, saw FIFA latch on to that trend and take it global.


Telstar Durlast (1974)


The Telstar was such a hit that it was only slightly tweaked, and not completely redeveloped, for the 1974 tournament in West Germany - the home of Adidas. Adidas Telstar Durlast 1974 World Cup ball

It was renamed the 'Telstar Durlast', but the 'Durlast' part had been present on the 1970 ball. This refers to the coating the ball was given to protect the leather and ensure it held up in wet weather.

A thicker coat of 'Durlast' was given to the 1974 ball, giving it its trademark shine.

The good news for Adidas is that now they were established as official partners of FIFA, they were permitted to leave their branding on the ball.

That made the Telstar Durlast a big seller, with the same ball that was used on the pitch available in stores. The brilliance of Johan Cruyff and the Netherlands at that tournament has served to make it another classic design.

Photo credit: WorldCupWiki


Tango (1978)


In 1978, Adidas introduced the Tango - named after the famous dance of hosts Argentina. Adidas Tango 1978 World Cup ball

It has gone on to become one of the most popular balls ever made, but Adidas were evidently somewhat nervy about the introduction of their second World Cup design - they produced a number of 'Telstar 1978' balls as a backup plan.

But the Tango took off, ditching the Telstar's black panels for an all-white base with black triangles arranged in a circular pattern, creating a certain effect when the ball rolled across the grass.

It sold in huge quantities and quickly became the most recognisable ball in the world.

In addition to its iconic design, part of the nostalgia with which the Tango is remembered is down to the fact that it marked the beginning of the end for the leather ball.


Tango Espana (1982)


Adidas did not mess around too much with a winning formula for the 1982 World Cup in Spain, introducing the Tango Espana. Adidas Tango Espana 1982 World Cup ball

The Tango Espana featured certain improvements to the water-resistance and durability of the ball and no longer needed the Durlast coating, as the seams were now welded as well as sewed together.

A water-repellent polyurethane layer would be added in 1984, taking us one step closer to the aforementioned death of the leather ball - more in that in the next section.

Other than that, the most notable difference was the addition of Adidas' three-leaf - known as 'trefoil' - logo.

Photo credit: Warren Rohner


Azteca (1986)


The Azteca is not a particularly memorable ball in itself, but is vitally important in the history of World Cup balls for a couple of reasons. Adidas Azteca 1986 World Cup ball

For starters, Adidas - having reused the Tango in Spain - once again designed a ball specific to the host country, in this case Mexico. That tradition would continue at every tournament from this point onwards.

But more importantly, this was the first synthetic ball to be used at a World Cup.

The attraction of synthetic balls was clear: they returned to their original shape immediately after being kicked and tested better than leather balls in just about every aspect, including water-resistance and durability.

The design of the Azteca and Adidas' trademark patterns of triangles was inspired by Aztec architecture and murals.


Etrusco Unico (1990)


Continuing the theme of paying homage in some way to the host country, the ball for Italia 90 was named after the Etruscans, a civilization of ancient Italy. Adidas Etrusco Unico 1990 World Cup ball

Most notably, the usual Tango-style 'triads' were decorated with the heads of Etruscan lions, a common subject of fine art during the period.

Adidas continued to work on the materials and properties of their fully synthetic ball following the 1986 World Cup, with the Etrusco Unico a progression of the Azteca.

For 20 years between 1978 and 1998, in fact, there would be very little change in what the official World Cup ball looked like aside from the fact that the original Tangos had been made of leather.

Photo credit: warrenski


Questra (1994)


For the first World Cup held in the United States, Adidas introduced the Questra. Adidas Questra 1994 World Cup ball

The theme this time was space travel, which was evident in both the ball's design and the attempt to make it the most futuristic, high-performance model used at a World Cup yet.

After a fairly dull tournament in Italy, FIFA hoped to spice things up.

The main innovation was a layer of polystyrene foam on the outside of the ball, which was said to make it feel softer to the touch and easier to control while increasing its speed at the same time.

The effect was obvious. Not a single team kept a clean sheet in the quarter-finals. Only three of 16 did in the first knockout round. Ironically, the final was one of only three 0-0 draws in the entire tournament but all in all, it was the highest-scoring World Cup since 1982 and featured some spectacular strikes.


Tricolore (1998)


The World Cup had been broadcast in colour for the first time back in 1970, but it was not until 1998 that the ball followed suit. Adidas Tricolore 1998 World Cup ball

The Adidas Tricolore, introduced for France 98, was the first ball to take on a multi-coloured design. It retained the Tango triads but, as the name suggests, gave them a red, blue and white flair to match the French flag.

There were performance improvements, with the foam layer that had been introduced in 1994 further developed to make the ball softer and faster.

But the most notable aspect of the Tricolore was undoubtedly the design and the precedent it set.

The introduction of colour opened Adidas' eyes to a world of new possibilities and would see the traditional Tango pattern abandoned at the next World Cup in 2002.

Photo credit: Getty Images


Fevernova (2002)


With the Fevernova, created for the World Cup in South Korea and Japan in 2002, Adidas really started to experiment. Adidas Fevernova 2002 World Cup ball

They did so firstly in the design of the ball, ditching the traditional Tango look for a blank ball that was given larger green, gold and red triangular patterns.

But Adidas also continued to change things up in terms of the ball's technical aspects, with the Fevernova noted by many players for feeling lighter than previous models - despite the fact it hit the upper end of the weight limit imposed by FIFA.

David Beckham, an Adidas ambassador who helped to test the Fevernova, backed the manufacturer's claims that this was a ball as precise as had ever been made.

Gianluigi Buffon, on the other hand, referred to it as a "crazy bouncing ball".

Photo credit: Getty Images


Teamgeist (2006)


Teamgeist means team spirit, a tribute to hosts Germany's tradition of collective strength over individual brilliance. Adidas Teamgeist 2006 World Cup ball

The most notable development in 2006 was the introduction of a 14-panel design with fewer seams, which was intended to make the ball rounder and more consistent. It tested better than any ball in the world had at the time of its release.

But still, not everyone was happy.

Some players complained of a 'knuckleball' effect when the ball was airborne, claiming that its flight was too unpredictable. This was highlighted in the very first game of the World Cup, when Philipp Lahm and Torsten Frings scored spectacular goals that visibly dipped and swerved in the air.

Adidas produced a custom ball, printed with the fixture details, for every match of the tournament and also introduced a special gold version - the 'Teamgeist Berlin' - for the final.

Photo credit: Getty Images


Jabulani (2010)


In 2010, things got really interesting. Adidas Jabulani 2010 World Cup ball

The Jabulani might be the most famous ball ever made - thanks to its notoriety. Adidas attempted to create a ball that was rounder than ever by decreasing the number of panels again, from 14 on the Teamgeist to just eight on the Jabulani.

It was viewed as so unpredictable, though, that goalkeepers revolted.

Julio Cesar compared the Jabulani to the cheap balls sold in supermarkets, while Iker Casillas called it "horrible". It was said to affect passing as well as shooting and a dull, cagey group stage brought the ball in for even more criticism.

Adidas countered by claiming they had been testing the ball for six months, and pointed to praise by Adidas-sponsored players such as Frank Lampard and Michael Ballack.

In the end, it took a NASA study to get to the bottom of the issue. They discovered that the Jabulani started to 'knuckle' (move in the air) at a higher speed than previous balls because of its smoother surface with fewer seams.

That sounds like a good thing in theory, but the problem was that shots such as direct free-kicks tended to travel at that higher speed - making the effect more noticeable in practice.

Photo credit: Getty Images


Brazuca (2014)


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. Adidas Brazuca 2014 World Cup ball

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 around the world 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 certain league matches.

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

Photo credit: Getty Images


Telstar 18 (2018)


In November 2017, Adidas released the Telstar 18 - the official match ball of the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Adidas Telstar 18 2018 World Cup ball

It 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.

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

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The ball will be extensively tested in the lead-up to the tournament and has already been used in various youth competitions (with a different design), including the Under-20 World Cup.

However, the ball has already drawn criticism with Spain internationals David de Gea and Pepe Reina claiming it is 'strange' and that it is more difficult to grip than other balls. Germany shot-stopper Marc-Andre ter Stegen echoed concerns, but conceded that goalkeepers will simply have to get used to it.

Photo credit: Getty Images

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