Ball, Disrupted: A Brief History of World Cup Innovation

The real stars of each match have evolved from pigs' bladders to lumps of rubber to aerodynamic, TV-friendly spheres.
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The balls of 1930, 1974, and 2014 (Oldelpaso/Wikimedia Commons)

One of the biggest controversies of the 2010 World Cup—aside from, obviously, those that had to do with vuvuzelas—involved the tournament's ball itself. While Adidas, which has made the World Cup match balls since 1970, advertised its latest creation as being aerodynamically superior to other soccer balls, many players ended up concluding the opposite. The Brazilian goalie Julio Cesar called the ball "terrible" (adding, in his frustration, that it looked like it had come from a grocery store). The striker Robinho complained that "for sure the guy who designed this ball never played football." 

The Jabulani was, it turned out, too slick for its own good: Air, as it passes over a smooth sphere, breaks away from that object's surface, making the path of its flight susceptible to forces—wind, say. The Jabulani's smooth stitching gave it a tendency to break in the air unpredictably and, for players and fans alike, frustratingly. 

Adidas, it seems, has learned from its mistake. Today brings the World Cup debut of a new ball, the Brazuca (named—by a fan poll that drew nearly a million votes—for the Portuguese word that means, depending on your preferred translation, either "distinctly Brazilian" or "done with flair"). Over the next five weeks the ball will be, as one commentator put it"the most viewed piece of sporting equipment on the planet." 

The Brazuca is made of only six panels—a departure from the eight-panel Jabulani (not to mention the 32-panel affair that debuted in the 1970 World Cup). But the seams that bind those panels are deep—three times deeper, in fact, than those of the Jabulani. The textured surface means that airflow will stay close to the kicked ball, PopSci notes—which in turn will create a narrower flight path, one that’s less susceptible to winds and other forces. So the Brazuca, Adidas says, features fewer panels, and a truer flight. 

All this emphasis on the Brazuca is a nice reminder of how much impact a single variable—panels of polyurethane, stitched together to make a sphere—can have on the outcome of a game. And of a tournament. Soccer balls, as technologies, have evolved greatly over the years, from the earliest (the bladders of animals—pigs, usually) to more high-tech versions (Charles Goodyear's 1836 version, made of his newly patented vulcanized rubber). The balls have become more wind-resistant. They have become more aerodynamic. They have become more able to do the bidding of the player. 

Below, via Soccer Ball World, is a brief history of the spheres that are the constant stars of each soccer match. 

An unnamed ball: Uruguay, 1930

Below is one of the balls used during the first World Cup, played in Uruguay. In the build-up to the final match, played between Uruguay and Argentina, the teams bickered over who should provide the match ball. FIFA intervened, ruling that the Argentine team would provide the ball for the first half of the game, and that Uruguay would provide the ball used for the second. Uruguay won. 

Oldelpaso/Wikimedia Commons

The Telstar: Mexico, 1970 

Adidas, which began making soccer balls in 1963, began its tradition of making the "official" World Cup ball in 1970. Its first ball was the Telstar—a ball named for a satellite and using the Buckminster ball design. The ball featured 32 black-and-white panels. (The 1970 World Cup was the first to be broadcast live on television; the black-and-white design helped the ball's visibility on black-and-white TVs.)

The Telstar Durlast: West Germany, 1974  

Two match balls were used in 1974. The Adidas Telstar was updated with new black branding replacing the gold branding and a new all-white version of Telstar named Adidas Chile was introduced. 1974 was also the first time World Cup match balls could carry names and logos.

Warren Rohner/Wikimedia Commons

The Tango: Argentina, 1978

The Tango featured 20 panels with interior triads that, seen from a distance, created the optical illusion of 12 identical circles on the surface of the ball. The Tango would go on to inspire the match ball design for the next five World Cup tournaments.

Warren Rohner/Wikimedia Commons

The Tango Espana: Spain, 1982

Adidas introduced a new ball which had rubber inlaid over the seams to prevent water from seeping through. The first ball with water-resistant qualities. General wear from kicking, however, meant the rubber began to thin after a short time and needed to be replaced during the game. The last genuine leather World Cup ball.

The Azteca: Mexico, 1986

The 1986 World Cup saw the introduction of the first synthetic match ball. The Azteca (decorated, as its name suggests, with ancient Aztec designs) was rain-resistant and coated in polyurethane.

The Etrusco: Italy, 1990  

The Etrusco was the first ball to feature an internal layer of black polyurethane foam.

zanlorenzovicente/eBay

The Questra: United States, 1994

The Questra was covered in a layer of polystyrene foam. That allowed the ball both extra waterproofing and greater acceleration when kicked. 

The Tricolore: France, 1998

The ball, which featured France's blue, white, and red tri-color, was the first to depart from the traditional black-and-white color scheme. 

The Fevernova: Korea and Japan, 2002

For the 2002 World Cup, Adidas debuted a ball whose inner layers were thicker than those of its predecessors, as a way of increasing the ball's in-flight accuracy.

The Teamgeist: Germany, 2006    

The Teamgeist featured a new panel configuration meant to reduce the amount of panel touch-points on the ball. Before it came along, seams and ridges meant that the place a player struck the ball would affect the ball's flight; the smooth exterior of the Teamgeist minimized that effect, improving accuracy and control.  

Kandschwar/Wikimedia Commons

The Jabulani, South Africa, 2010

The Jabulani featured a new grip-and-groove technology meant to provide a stable flight and grip (and under varied weather conditions). Its eight panels were thermally bonded. It was, again, unpopular. As Spain's goalie, Iker Casillas, put it"It is very sad that a competition so important as the world championship will be played with such a horrible ball."

BrokenSphere/Wikimedia Commons

The Brazuca, Brazil, 2014

It's the highest-tech, most aerodynamic ball the World Cup has seen. And players seem to like it. As Nick Rimando, the U.S.'s backup goalie, put it"The ball seems to be behaving itself and it seems solid and predictable. I know there were a few issues last time, but I don't think we will see anything like that this time."

Adidas

 

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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