Sometimes when we think of the World Cup, it’s easy to gloss over some of the most important aspects of the game. The billion-dollar stadiums, the multicolored boots and the kaleidoscope of new shirts are all designed to distract, but the fundamental building blocks of the game remain just as innovative. We continue our World Cup Month with a look back at the most important ingredient of all – the ball.

Before 1970

The ball might seem like the most functional aspect of a football game but for a long time it was nothing if not controversial. In the black-and-white, grainy footage days of the World Cup, disputes were common and often marred the biggest events.

The balls back then were made from hand-stitched leather and were more than a little prone to all kinds of disfigurement, from expanding in wet weather and being kicked out of shape, to downright underhand tactics, where players would pick at the seams to make the ball harder to control. Consequently, the choice of ball could easily influence the outcome of the match.

The first ever final, between Uruguay and Argentina, featured such an event. Both sides wanted their pick of pelota and the referee, unable to separate the South American giants, decreed that the first half would be played with a ball of the Argentines choosing and the second with the Uruguayan’s choice. With something approaching inevitability, Argentina scored twice with their choice to lead 2-1 at the break, only to be overturned by the Uruguayan ball to lose 4-2.

Farces such as this continued and culminated in the 1962 tournament, when referees were so distrusting that they would regularly change the ball and submitted official complaints to FIFA about the standard of equipment found in Chile, the host nation. FIFA, resolved to do something about it and turned to their go-to apparel suppliers, adidas, to fix the problem. They didn’t disappoint.

adidas Telstar

The 1970 World Cup was a watershed moment for the tournament for many reasons. Mexico ’70 brought the likes of Pele, Bobby Moore and Franz Beckenbauer into homes around the world in a brand new way. Previously, it had been notoriously difficult to broadcast live, and, thus, fans were survived on monochrome newsreel footage of their heroes. But come 1970, color television had become the norm and the bright green pitches, colorful uniforms and the contrasting black/white paneled ball were beamed directly to millions.

Ironically, the checkered design of the adidas Telstar was created deliberately to enhance visibility for those watching in black and white. Its appeal though, was the 32 panels, which gave it a unique and iconic look, and led to its adoption as the go-to caricature, replicated easily in animation and instantly identifiable as a football to this day.

adidas Tango

The problem, as adidas have often found in football, is improving on good work already done. Their Telstar ball had been so successful at the World Cups of 1970 and 1974 that it had become the default football design and proved difficult to top. When FIFA commissioned them to create a new ball for Argentina ’78, they decided to back to the principles that had made the Telstar a success.

Their new effort, the Tango, incorporated the monochrome of its predecessor, but expanded on it, with black triangular forms on a white background, creating the illusion of 12 circles around the ball, which made it even easier to spot, particularly when muddy. They also streamlined the number of panels, cutting down to 20, and thus decreasing the potential of the ball to become saturated with water and lose its shape.

The Tango went on to be the official ball of the next five tournaments, with updated editions featuring designs specific to the host nations and technological increases that led to the first all-synthetic ball in 1986, rain-resistant polyurethane coating in 1990 and a polystyrene foam layer (to improve control) in 1994. The final Tango, the 1998 Tricolore, was the first ever colored World Cup ball, with a red/blue/white design that reflected the hosts, France.

adidas Jabulani

The Fevernova (2002) and +Teamgeist (2006) departed from the Tango, the latter through it’s enlarged synthetic foam layer, which reduced deviations in flight, the former through a radical overhaul of panel design, aimed at increasing ball control, but it was through the 2010 Jabulani that the major overhaul occurred.

The Jabulani was covered in small dimples, a so-called “Grip’n’Groove” effect that made the ball easier to control and molded, ridge-less panels, which led them to claim the ball as their “roundest ever.” The effect, however, was markedly different.

Players complained of an inability to control the direction and weight of passes due to the low weight of the ball and goalkeepers reported unprecedented movements in flight, some (rather ridiculously, it must be said) announcing that the ball was “too round.” The statistics bore this out. Goals were at a premium in South Africa, with passes regularly going astray and shots ballooning over the bar. Those that did hit the target often produced ridiculous errors from the keepers, who were deceived by drastic movements, or “wobbles” when the ball was in the air.

adidas Brazuca

After the Jabulani fiasco in 2010, adidas were under pressure to deliver ahead of this year’s tournament in Brazil, and with the tournament almost done, they can be pretty proud of their effort. Technically speaking, the Brazuca is made from six thermally-molded panels, draws from the Finale 12, the ball used in the UEFA Champions League, and is predominantly white, but with flashes of green, red and blue, designed not only for looks, but also to assist the goal-line technology which debuted at Brazil 2014.

The Brazuca is also unique in having become the first ball to be named by popular vote, as Brazilians were canvassed of their opinions online before the ball was released. They chose brazuca, a slang phrase meaning “mate,” or “our fellow,” but taken to represent the Brazilian way of life, and particularly the Brazilian community abroad.

Check out the rest of our World Cup Month features here.

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