The iconic moments of each World Cup are all woven together with one thread – the ball.
What began as a purely utilitarian piece of equipment nearly a century ago is now a high tech wonder, designed not only for peak performance at the sport’s biggest event, but also to sell millions of replica balls all over the world.
So let’s take a look at all 22 match balls from each of the World Cups, and see which one is the best. We’ll be judging primarily on aesthetics, but the technology, construction techniques, and lasting legacy on the game will also be taken into account where applicable.
The Early Years
It’s hard to rank the balls from the first eight editions of the World Cup, as aside from some variances in construction techniques, these balls all looked pretty much the same.
The number and shape of the panels differs slightly from year to year, some featured laces and later on those disappeared, but these are the super retro style balls that a casual observer would mistake for a modern volleyball.
There is something special about these old style footballs, and these were what was kicked around from the earliest beginnings of the game thru the mid-20th century, but from a purely aesthetic standpoint, they’re no doubt the least interesting of all the World Cup designs. So we’ll leave them here in their own special category, and move on to ranking the more visually distinct designs made by Adidas from 1970 onwards.
#14 – Fevernova
Possibly a controversial take here, but something always just seemed off about this design. Perhaps that it was such a drastic departure from the 30+ years of balls before it, a shock to the system of sorts (a bit like Ronaldo’s infamous haircut that also graced the ’02 World Cup). The 3-sided design, a bit evocative of a spinning top or saw blade, did repeat around the ball, but from many angles (like in the photo above) it can only be seen once, producing the effect of making the rest of the ball look plain white. An interesting foray into more adventurous designs, but not the best.
#13 – Telstar Durlast
Iconic? Absolutely. But this was essentially a repeat of the revolutionary design first introduced in 1968 (and also used in the 1970 World Cup). No points for originality here, and the heavy all-black type takes away from the elegant simplicity of the classic geometric design.
#12 – Tango Espana
Another absolutely classic design that was a re-hash of the previous Cup’s ball. As the saying goes, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, but as we’ll see further down the line you can take a classic formula and update it with unique flavor to fit each event.
#11 – Questra
The least inspired of the custom Tango derivatives, the ball of the record-setting 1994 World Cup incorporated a space-themed design within the familiar triangular shapes introduced in 1978. An interesting design (and if you read my review of the 2022 NWSL kits you know I love a good space theme), but it seems lacking for the first ever World Cup in the USA and the first true World Cup of the 1990s.
The black and white design looks like one of the grainy photos sent back from the first primitive satellite cameras in the 1960s. A splash of color and perhaps some stars and/or stripes would’ve produced a stronger effort. I’d welcome a more colorful remix of this design in 2026 as the World Cup returns to the USA (alongside co-hosts Canada and Mexico)
#10 – Telstar18
2018’s Telstar18 ball evokes the general feel of its 1970s namesake (especially when rendered in standard black/grey, the photo above shows the red version for the final), but with a modern update. The elongated hexagon shapes featured a sort of pixelated design, fading out to the white base color. The nod to the original iconic Telstar on it’s 50th anniversary was a decent idea, and a change of pace to a more measured design after the more flamboyant designs that preceded it was welcome, but this design could’ve been trotted out for any league or competition, nothing about it really connects to the World Cup or the host nation.
#9 – +Teamgeist
The ball on the pitch when Zidane was infamously sent off in the final vs Italy, this was the first World Cup ball since 1970 that wasn’t a truncated icosahedron. Featuring 14 curved panels instead of the previously-standard 32, and one of the first balls to be thermally bonded together instead of stitched, this was the year the ball really leaped forward into the 21st century in terms of tech and design.
#8 – Jabulani
Jabulani, meaning “Be Happy!” in Zulu, was the ball for the first ever World Cup played in Africa. While from a distance the triangular shapes appear to be mostly black, 11 different colors were used representing the 11 players on the field and 11 official languages of South Africa. This was the first ball that featured a textured surface, intended to be more aerodynamic, but received criticism from both goalkeepers and strikers alike for being very unpredictable in the air.
#7 – Telstar
Ask any random person to draw a soccer ball. They will, without a doubt, attempt to draw something that resembles this one. The black and white pattern was developed as a way for the ball to stand out on the still common black-and-white televisions of the time, and became the quintessential representation of a football worldwide. And it still is today, despite not being regularly used by any pro league or international competitions for nearly 50 years.
You’ll find this design on countless club and national team crests around the world, the Google Images clipart search page, and just about everywhere the sport of soccer is mentioned. In really the only sport where the design of the main piece of equipment changes so regularly, it’s remarkable how this one has become synonymous with the game. A true icon.
#6 – Tango Durlast
A simple, but stunningly effective bit of design that became the look of the biggest soccer events in the world for nearly a quarter century. This basic template was utilized in the World Cup from its debut in Argentina in ’78 right up thru France ’98. The triangular shapes on each hexagon of the ball link to create the impression of larger circles in the negative space. Though not as repeated throughout popular culture as its predecessor, this design is just as iconic, if not more, especially if you grew up with the game in the 1980s and 90s like I did.
#5 – Etrusco
The 1990 edition added the flair of Ancient Rome to the, by then, well-established Tango formula. A great looking ball and a solid design that represented the host nation.
#4 – Brazuca
Definitely the most daring design to date, and certainly the most fun name to say, the Brazuca’s bold shapes and colors perfectly fit the vibrant host nation of Brazil. The dark areas where the panels meet offers a slight callback to the old Tango designs, but this one really stands out on its own as truly unique.
#3 – Tricolore
The final in a two-decade long series of Tango variations, this was the first ever World Cup ball to feature color in the design. The blue, white and red of the French flag really stood out after 30 years of black and white, and the use of the Adidas logo as the comb on the head of the stylized cockerel was absolutely brilliant. The heavy host nation influence in the design turned out to be a great choice, as France would go on to win the tournament for the first time.
#2 – Al Rihla
Despite the mountain of controversies surrounding the host nation – how they came to host in the first place, the playing conditions, the resulting fall/winter timing of the event, the treatment of workers, among other legitimate concerns – they’ve turned out a fabulous ball design for the first tournament held in the Middle East. Named Al Rihla, which means “The Journey” in Arabic, the ball is perhaps the most colorful design yet for a World Cup. The overlapping triangular sections, with colorful patterns representing the architecture of Qatar, simply look fast and exciting. It appears to be in motion, even in a static photo. Maybe it’s the 13 year old inside me talking, but this ball just looks undeniably cool.
#1 – Azteca
An exercise in absolutely nailing the less-is-more theory of design, the 1986 ball took the format introduced with 1978’s Tango and, for the first time in World Cup history, incorporated elements that represented the host nation (we wonder what the design may have looked like if Colombia had hosted in ’86 as originally intended). The geometric patterns evoke the art and culture of Mexico’s Aztec civilization, and perfectly strike a balance between symbolism and simplicity. With nothing more than a few angular lines, they created something instantly memorable that takes you to a certain place (and time). When The Hand of God reached out, it touched this ball. In my book, this is the perfect World Cup ball.
Well, there you have it. What do you think? How did we do on ranking every World Cup match ball? Let us know your favorite World Cup ball in the comments section.
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