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.
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 

Presented by

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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