Space & Innovation

World Cup 2014: How the Soccer Ball Has Evolved

From early pig bladders to high-tech wonders, the colorful sphere that makes soccer possible has seen plenty of changes over the course of centuries.

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Thursday, June 12, marks the start of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. The Cup is a chase that will be followed by passionate fans of soccer (or football, depending upon where you live) all around the globe. One fact about the sport is inarguable: The games would look a little silly without a ball, and the object of each team's desire has seen a lot of changes over the course of many centuries.

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In honor of the game's most important piece of equipment, let's take a look at some of the soccer balls used in the game's history. Shown here is this year's model, the adidas Brazuca, a name chosen by poll of more than one million Brazilian soccer fans. The ball wasn't always this sleek piece of high-tech wizardry, as the next slide will reveal.

People have been kicking balls -- of one form or another -- around for a long, long time. The Chinese of 255 B.C. kicked leather balls into nets, and 9th-century children in Europe kicked around pig's bladders. Eventually, by the Middle Ages, someone got the idea to stitch leather over the bladder to make a more durable, more reliably rounded thing to kick.

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Unfortunately, there are no photos of those earliest bladder-based balls. The earliest known ball we can see is this one, which resides in Scotland's Stirling Smith Art Gallery and Museum and is dated to the 1540s. It somehow got stuck in the rafters of the Queen's Chamber in Stirling Castle, and it was not found until work on the ceiling in the 1970s prompted its discovery.

As we just noted, early soccer balls were often made of pig's bladders. This presented problems -- not only for pigs but for the would-be soccer players. The size and shape of the ball would depend on the bladder size, so uniformity in size of the singular tool of the soccer trade was lacking. That would begin to change, spherically speaking, once Charles Goodyear patented vulcanized rubber and balls began to transition to rubber as the bladder of choice. Now the ball could have a more uniform size, and indeed by 1872 the English Football Association deemed that soccer balls should be as spherical as possible and should measure 27-28 inches in circumference. Even today, that's the official size.

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Shown here is the football team of the 1st Royal Scots (Lothian Regiment), 1896, holders of the Army Football Association Challenge Cup. The ball does certainly look kickable.

Though it's a fixture today, the first World Cup did not take place until 1930. Here we see the ball used in the 1930 World Cup final, on display at the National Football Museum.

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The two final teams, Argentina and Uruguay, had an argument about which ball to use, so two balls were used, one in each half. The first-half ball, chosen by Argentina, was a 12-panel ball, while this ball, chosen by the Uruguayan team, was used in the second half and was a common "T-model," with five rows of laces. (There were actually two T-model balls used in the second half; the first ball deflated.) Uruguay won the match and became the inaugural winner of the World Cup.

The 1970 World Cup in Mexico marked adidas's first official World Cup soccer ball, and the company has provided official match balls ever since. This ball ushered in the advent of the prototypical soccer ball look. The classic design alternated white hexagons and black pentagons in 32 hand-stitched panels covering the ball. The ball has an iconic look that to this day is probably the image people carry in their heads of a "soccer ball." One of the goals behind its two-tone look was to create a ball that would really stand out on black-and-white televisions.

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As we will see in the following quick snapshots, the World Cup ball always has at least a design or structural tweak to accompany the latest competition.

For the 1974 World Cup, adidas supplied two match balls: the adidas Telstar and adidas Chile. The logo changed from gold to black with the new balls.

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The 1978 World Cup in Argentina brought a major change in look, with use of the adidas Tango, which put 20 identical circles across the ball.

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Spain hosted the World Cup in 1982, and for this set of games the ball, the adidas Tango Espana, changed in a key but non-visual way: It employed waterproof, sealed seams that helped the ball avoid becoming waterlogged during wet match conditions.

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Big structural changes were afoot with the 1986 ball for the Mexico matches. The adidas Azteca became the first completely synthetic, polyurethane-coated match ball. The Azteca provided a more durable ball that was even less susceptible to water absorption. Visually, the ball was the first design to use imagery from the host nation -- drawing on influences from Aztec architecture and murals.

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Tucked under 1990's adidas Etrusco Unico was a new layer of polyurethane foam that rendered it fully water-resistant. Host country Italy's history and Etruscan art figured in the design.

In the 1994 World Cup, held in the United States, the adidas Questra was the official match ball. The ball was now softer to touch and was faster to come off the foot, thanks to an external layer of polystyrene foam. The rocket imagery on the ball represented U.S. space technology and the country's continuing quest for the stars.

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The World Cup moved to France in 1998, and the adidas Tricolore became the first multi-colored match ball. The ball, which used French national colors, also incorporated new printing methods aimed at improving the visibility of the ball.

Korea and Japan hosted the 2002 World Cup, and those matches featured the bright, colorful adidas Fevernova, inspired by Asian culture.

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The adidas Teamgeist match ball, for the 2006 World Cup in Germany, made huge design changes by decreasing the number of panels, creating a smoother surface that helped players with their accuracy and control.

The 2010 World Cup in South Africa saw the debut of the adidas Jabulani, which employed a new technology aimed at improving grip, in any conditions. Its eight panels were molded into what the company hailed as its most round and accurate ball yet. With this year's Brazuca, a six-panel design has been engineered by adidas to improve grip, stability and aerodynamics. According to the company, more than 600 top soccer players were involved in testing of the ball, which, it's hoped, will fly truer than any prior World Cup soccer ball. Let the games begin.