If you ever want to consider how far football’s developed, just look the greatest match balls of all time. And consider, how far that football has really developed.
This silly, stupendous sport started life, essentially, as a fight over a pig’s bladder between Victorian gentlemen. The centrepiece of the beautiful game has since evolved and expanded, though – literally – to become rounded, softer, lighter, technicolour and packed with more technology than a space shuttle. Our forefathers wrote the laws of the game to apply to a lump of leather: now, match balls are tested in laboratories for years before they even touch a blade of grass.
Like a specific song from a lad’s holiday or a t-shirt in the back of your wardrobe, just the look of a specific football will evoke specific memories. You see, manufacturers will promise with every new ball this season that this iteration of this brand of match ball is so much more high-tech than the last one – but these footballs will always hold special places in our hearts.
15. Nike Ordem 3
There are some out there who seeth with anger that the Premier League rebranded with a rounded new logo, soft green colours and rounder arm patches, for the 2016/17 season. The Nike Ordem 3 ball recalls a simpler time: a time where Claudio Ranieri was a tactical genius, a time before Joe Hart was given marching orders from Manchester City.
This was the 2015/16 ball, by the way. With its Spiderman-like casing, red gradients and big volt Swoosh, it’s almost the definitive 2010s Premier League football, despite having virtually nothing special to separate it from any other football released that decade. It’s just… nice. Leicesterian souls still yearn for it.
14. Adidas Jabulani
Look at this thing and tell us, straight-faced, that you can’t still hear the rumble of a vuvuzela.
As is tradition for every World Cup ball, the Adidas Jabulani was panned by just about everyone who kicked it – aesthetically-pleasing, as it was. The final ball was marvellously called the Jo’bulani – in reference to Johannesburg’s nickname, Jo’burg – but not even that would save the abhorred orb from its haters. There were even those who thought it was to blame for Frank Lampard’s ghost goal against Germany being ruled out.
“Whoever is responsible for this should be taken out and shot for crimes against football,” Craig Johnstone, former Liverpool midfielder and inventor of the Predator boot claimed in a leaked letter. Bit harsh, Craig.
12. Adidas Roteiro
The Italians complained that it swerved too much. English tabloids questioned whether it was to blame for penalty misses (no guys, it’s just us). But looking back, the Roteiro from Euro 2004 is that smelly supply teacher who you didn’t particularly like at the time but look back on semi-fondly now.
The Roteiro was a silver thing with black patterning, that had the name of the stadium, plus the longitude and latitude of the centre spot of the pitch inscribed on it. It didn’t scream “cool” at the time but looking back, it’s quirky enough to occupy a corner of your memory that subsequent Euro balls have failed to.
11. Umbro Ceramica
Like Stonehenge, Gary Cahill or COVID-19, no one really knows where the Umbro Ceramica came from and no one remembers life before it. It’s an ever-present image in your mind’s eye – you probably can’t even remember a game that it was used in. Maybe an England friendly? Who knows.
Everyone’s had a kickabout with this – or at least punted it back to some kids in bibs at a park. It’s a simple enough design, utilising the Umbro logo nicely and despite its absence from top-level competition, it’s instantly recognisable.
11. Adidas Brazuca
The Brazuca was Brazil 2014’s World Cup ball. It was trialled for two years before the World Cup, even tested into a DFB-Pokal final – just to confirm that it wasn’t as mental as the Jabulani – and it went on to influence balls used in the Europa League and Bundesliga.
It was an instant hit too: the swirls looked childlike, with celestial stars where these darker patches met. The blue, orange and green is distinctly Brazilian: ironic, perhaps, that you can’t look at one now without thinking of their collective meltdown during the 7-1 discombobulation.
10. Adidas Teamgeist
Another World Cup ball, more hate. The 2006 Adidas Teamgeist was criticised by Roberto Carlos and David Beckham – hilariously, a swerve connoisseur and an Adidas ambassador respectively – not to mention the fact that its density would radically change when wet. But don’t let that put you off from how damn iconic this beast was.
The Teamgeist came slap bang in Adidas’s golden prime when Lampard and Gerrard were still being crowbarred into the same midfield role and the walls of JD Sports would be filled with nothing but Predator boots. The gold version of the Teamgeist is synonymous with Zinedine Zidane, who was also kitted out in gold Adidas boots for his last tournament – even the regular version had gold-tinted along the curves.
It’s opulent, exciting; a relic of pre-credit crunch Europe where footballers wore gold like peacocking monarchs. The infinity-shaped panels are still an awesome design to this day.
Don't laugh. It's iconic.
The chances are that you know what it looks like without knowing what it’s called. The Allen ball – not to be confused with 1966 World Cup winner, Alan Ball – is a classic of the genre: the ultimate orange-brown match ball, complete with cotton laces.
The Allen was made of leather, consisted of 13 panels and debuted at the 1938 World Cup in France – fittingly, it had the words “Coupe De Monde” in bold black lettering. This has become the standard stock photo of any brown leather football, from the panelling down the warm, chocolatey colour. It would give you concussion if you tried to deliver a bullet header, but oh, was it a pretty thing.
8. Adidas Tricolore
It was the 1970s when the FIFA World Cup was first widely broadcast in colour; Johan Cruyff in vibrant orange, Brazilians in glowing carnival shades. It took a whole two decades for the ball itself to get with the programme.
It was worth the wait. The first coloured ball at a World Cup, the '98 Adidas Tricolore, played on the traditional Tango design with an intricate pattern. The French red, white and blue decorated the ball beautifully; it was the last Tango-style to feature at a World Cup but it opened Pandora’s box in terms of future designs.
7. Adidas Fevernova
The World Cup was reinvented in 2002. New continent. New millennium. New look for Adidas. The Fevernova is just as bold and groundbreaking, inspired entirely by Asian culture: the dark gold shape resembles a tomoe (comma-like swirl symbol used in Japanese) with the red streaks representing calligraphy brush strokes that you might see in manga.
This thing looked super-cool when Becks and Raul shuffled it about in their Predator Manias. Not sure we believe those who claimed it was to blame for the shock results of that tournament, though.
6. Nike Merlin Geo
Dennis Bergkamp’s turn on Nikos Dabizas. The original Total 90 boots. Ruud van Nistelrooy going beserk. The Premier League highlights being broadcast on ITV1. There are so many memories evoked by this classic football, which was the first that Nike created for the Prem.
It was also the ball that got the chrome makeover for the incredible Scorpion adverts, too. The Geo is as timeless a design as a Dalek or a Bakelite telephone. It’s part of English footballing heritage.
5. Adidas Telstar
The Adidas Telstar was beamed onto TV sets from the Mexico World Cup in 1970 – a futuristic black-and-white beast of a ball – and it became so ubiquitous that it became the standard of how children around the world would draw a football.
The 32-panel globe coloured every hexagon white and every pentagon black: it was that simple a design. Yes, it looks blocky and boring now but at the time, there was nothing cooler than Pele skinning defenders with this thing. It’s legendary in the timeline of sport itself.
4. Nike Total 90 Aerow
Between 2004 and 2007, everything that Nike touched turned to gold. Circles around the numbers on shirts? Sure, why not. TV ads of Thierry Henry pirouetting through an expensive apartment – only to find the Manchester United team in his spare room? Makes sense. Putting a massive “90” on the instep of boots? It looked great.
The Total 90 Aerow adhered to this strange aesthetic of the American manufacturer doing everything minimal yet big, bold and in your face. Gone was the elegant Geo patterned ball in the Premier League, replaced by a pure, white pill – and it had a massive blue ring around it. When we ticked through to the winter, Nike delivered the same ball but in luminous yellow.
It became an instant classic. It’s still the most iconic football ever produced by the company – so much so that Prem standards since have been based on it.
3. Mitre Ultimax
Mitre is interwoven into the very fabric of football. The first football to ever travel at 100mph was the Ultimax, a typically chevron-covered beauty with glorious blue and gold patterns all over. This was Alan Shearer’s best friend, Paulo Di Canio’s partner in crime. It couldn’t be more 90s if it played Wonderwall when you caught it.
The Ultimax is still the longest-serving Premier League ball and the template that Mitre has looked to evolve from for the past 25 years. Last year, the manufacturer re-released the Ultimax to the squealing glee of Prem nerds everywhere - and rightly so. It holds so many memories of Blackburn Rovers lifting silverware, Arsene Wenger’s early years and Fergie’s boys forming into superstars of the game.
It’s perhaps the only piece of footballing folklore from 1995 that’s still as beautiful as the day it debuted. It would look just as cool if the likes of Salah and Sterling played with it.
2. Adidas Tango
After the blocky Telstar design got outings in ‘70 and ‘74, Adidas renovated its flagship ball look in Argentina in 1978. It would take took something pretty special to shift the Telstar from its perch but what dropped into stadiums informed the following six tournaments of football fashion – perhaps not even total football was that influential.
The Tango is one of the nicest examples of negative space design in the history of football, with the cute and curvy triangular shapes forming a net around the ball, leaving white circles on which Adidas plastered their logo. Over the years, it would evolve too; first to incorporate Aztec patterns for Mexico ‘86, before going full-Rome for Italia 90 and starry-eyed for USA ‘94. Eventually, the last Tango of Paris signed off the design with the aforementioned Tricolore of France ‘98.
It’s hard to know what made the Tango so enduring, other than its simplicity. It played in more World Cups than any player, though: it’s an icon of the game and will forever be associated with the World Cup.
1. Adidas Finale
It was 2001 when Zinedine Zidane swung a left peg at Roberto Carlos’s looping cross, to smash the Adidas Finale into the top bin of the Bayer Leverkusen net. The Frenchman didn’t just justify £45m of outlay: he ensured the Champions League ball would go down in history.
This ball is almost holding back the tides of the European Super League: it doesn’t bear thinking about a top competition without starting with this masterpiece placed on the centre-spot. The starball stands for prestige; for glory under the lights. This is the football that they printed on a huge round sheet of silver fabric and gave to kids to waggle around on the centre-circle while the operatic anthem played. This is the ball used for the most important game in the sport: and it more than fits the criteria.
The Adidas Finale has almost ripened over the years, from a black-and-white Telstar-inspired piece into a chameleon that reflects its host city each season. You might not know which competitions the Tango was used in; the Geo Merlin or Aerow 90 were used in a few tournaments, too. But you know where you were when you saw the Finale. It is elite branding. It is timeless.
And like dog years, its 20-year lifetime is a long time in the modern-day: trends are fleeting now, written in pencil, not pen, as kits and boots are updated and renovated annually. Through it all, the Finale remains.
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