The iconic moments of every World Cup are all interwoven with one thread – the ball.
What began almost a century ago as a purely utility device is now a high-tech marvel designed not only to perform at the greatest sporting event, but also to sell millions of replica balls around 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 we’ll also consider the game’s technology, construction techniques, and enduring legacy where appropriate.
The early years
It is difficult to categorize the balls from the first eight editions of the World Cup as, apart from some differences in construction technique, these balls all looked pretty much the same.
The number and shape of the panels differs slightly from year to year, some have been laced up and later disappeared, but these are the super retro styled balls that a casual observer would mistake for a modern volleyball.
There is something special about these old style soccer balls and they were what was kicked around from the earliest beginnings of the game until the mid 20th century, but from a purely aesthetic point of view they are undoubtedly the least interesting of the World Cup designs. So we’ll leave them here in their own special category and proceed to rank the more visually striking designs made by Adidas from the 1970s onwards.
#14 – Fever Nova
Possibly a controversial take, but something just didn’t seem right about this design. Perhaps that it was such a drastic departure from the 30+ years of balls before it, a kind of shock to the system (a bit like Ronaldo’s infamous haircut that graced the 2002 World Cup). The 3-sided design, somewhat reminiscent of a spinning top or a saw blade, was repeated around the sphere, but from many angles (like the photo above) it can only be seen once, giving the effect the rest of the Making Sphere Sphere looks 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 font detracts from the elegant simplicity of the classic geometric design.
#12 – Spanish Tango
Another absolutely classic design that was a remake of the previous cup ball. As the saying goes, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it, but as we’ll see later, you can take a classic formula and update it with a unique flavor to suit any event.
#11 – Questra
Least inspired by the custom Tango derivatives, the record-breaking 1994 World Cup ball featured a space-themed design in the familiar triangular shapes introduced in 1978 (I know I love a good space theme), but it seems for the first-ever World Cup in the US and missing the first true World Cup of the 1990s.
The black and white design looks like one of those grainy photos sent back by the first primitive satellite cameras in the 1960s. A pop of color and maybe a few stars and/or stripes would have made a stronger effort. I’d welcome a more colorful remix of this design in 2026 when the World Cup returns to the US (alongside co-hosts Canada and Mexico).
#10 – Telstar18
The 2018 Telstar18 ball evokes the overall feel of its 1970s namesake (particularly when rendered in standard black/grey, the photo above shows the red version for the finals), but with a modern update. The elongated hexagonal shapes featured a sort of pixelated design that faded into the white base color. The nod to the original iconic Telstar on its 50th anniversary was a decent idea, and a tempo change to a more measured design after the more flamboyant designs that preceded it was welcome, but this design would have suited any league or competition, none of which has really anything to do with the World Cup or the host country.
#9 – +Team spirit
The ball on the pitch when Zidane was sent off in the final against Italy was the first World Cup ball since 1970 that wasn’t a truncated icosahedron. With 14 curved panels instead of the previously standard 32, and one of the first balls to be thermally bonded together instead of sewn, this was the year the ball really leaped into the 21st century in terms of technology and design.
#8 – Jabulani
Jabulani, meaning “Be Happy!” in Zulu, was the ball for the first-ever World Cup to be played in Africa. While the triangular shapes appear mostly black from a distance, 11 different colors have been used, representing the 11 players on the pitch and 11 official languages of South Africa. This was the first ball with a textured surface, intended to be more aerodynamic, but was criticized by both goalies and forwards for being very unpredictable in the air.
#7 – Telstar
Ask anyone to draw a soccer ball. You will no doubt try to draw something similar to this one. The black and white pattern was developed to make the ball stand out on the black and white televisions that were still common at the time, and became the quintessential soccer ball around the world. And it still is today, although it has not been used regularly by professional leagues or international competitions for almost 50 years.
You’ll find this design on countless club and national team crests around the world, on the Google Images clipart search page, and just about anywhere the sport of football is mentioned. In truly the only sport where the main device design changes so regularly, it’s remarkable how it has become synonymous with the game. A true icon.
#6 – Tango Durability
A simple yet amazingly effective piece of design that has been the look of the world’s biggest football events for almost a quarter of a century. This basic template was used at the World Cup from their debut in Argentina 1978 through France 1998. The triangular shapes on each hexagon of the ball joint create the illusion of larger circles in negative space. While this design isn’t repeated in popular culture as much as its predecessor, this design is just as iconic if not more so, especially if, like me, you grew up with the game in the 1980’s and 90’s.
#5 – Etruscan
The 1990 edition added the flair of ancient Rome to the then established tango formula. A great looking ball and solid design that represents the host nation.
#4 – Brazuca
Definitely the boldest design yet and certainly the funniest name to pronounce. The Brazuca’s bold shapes and colors complement the vibrant host nation of Brazil perfectly. The dark areas where the panels meet are slightly reminiscent of the old Tango designs, but this one really stands out as being truly unique.
#3 – Tricolor
The finale in a two-decade long line of Tango Variations was the first-ever colored design World Cup ball. 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 a crest on the stylized rooster’s head was absolutely brilliant. The host country’s strong influence on the design proved a good choice as France would win the tournament for the first time.
#2 – Al Rihla
Despite the mountain of controversy surrounding the host nation – how it came to be host in the first place, the terms of play, the event’s resulting fall/winter timing, the treatment of workers, among other legitimate concerns – they have emerged as a fabulous ball design for the first tournament in the Middle East. Named Al Rihla, which means “The Journey” in Arabic, the ball is perhaps the most colorful World Cup design yet. The overlapping triangular sections with colorful patterns depicting Qatar’s architecture just look fast and exciting. It seems to be in motion, even in a static photo. Maybe the 13-year-old in me is talking, but this ball just looks undeniably cool.
#1 – Aztecs
The 1986 ball was an exercise in nailing the less-is-more theory of design. It took the format introduced with the 1978 Tango and, for the first time in the history of the World Cup, incorporated elements representing the host country (we wonder what the design might have looked like when Colombia had 1986 as originally planned host). The geometric patterns are reminiscent of the art and culture of the Mexican Aztec civilization and strike a perfect balance between symbolism and simplicity. Using nothing more than a few angular lines, they’ve created something instantly memorable that takes you to a specific place (and time). When the hand of God reached out, it touched this ball. In my opinion, this is the perfect World Cup ball.
Well there you have it. What do you think? How did we rank in the All World Cup Match Ball Rankings? Let us know your favorite World Cup ball in the comments.