The most underappreciated part of the beautiful game is the tool that allows football’s greatest teams to make the magic on the field; the match ball.
From the old days of pigs bladders and rock hard spheres of concrete, match ball technology and design has come a long way. You might still hold memories of playing out as a youth with that bashed up, off-white excuse of a ball which had one panel left on it at a push, but here 90min celebrates the pinnacle of footballs.
We’ve pulled together a list of the best looking and most iconic match balls from the elite level of the game. Who knows, you might recognise one or two as rogue entries that someone brings to five-a-side every week.
Made for use in the 2019/20 Champions League final – which eventually was moved away from Istanbul – this modern match ball severely breaks the mould.
Very ballsy (pun intended), perhaps a little too flashy, but honestly, it works. Helps that it came in an already whirlwind season where an incredible Bayern Munich side kicked it around to become champions of Europe in front of no fans due to COVID-19.
The fifth iteration of a ball speaks volumes; is it just so unapologetically excellent, or are the manufacturers milking proceedings a little too much?
Regardless of which is was, watching Manchester City score 100 points in the 2017/18 Premier League season was even better knowing they did so with the seriously good looking Nike Ordem 5. More traditional, with subtle dashes of bold colour choices. Ideal.
By 2013/14, Nike’s template for balls was becoming a tad predictable. The Incyte was recognisable by Nike’s aggressive patterning yet again, but it still looked great.
The arrows gave the ball a dynamic feel and subtle extra graphics around the main design made it feel fresh enough to feel like a really solid match ball once more, without being over the top or dramatically innovative.
One for the traditionalists, Umbro stepped up to the plate with a sleek offering for the FA Cup in 2012/13.
The hi-vis yellow and blue iteration stands out as the best, but the template as a whole is severely underrated. Basic, true colours and a hint of design to bring the ball alive, without taking away from the stars smashing it from end to end in the cup competition.
If you had to design a ball that best encapsulates the Europa League, this would be it. To a tee.
Hats off to Molten for fighting stiff competition and bettering adidas since taking over. A perfect balance of orange and black around the ball, good use of graphics and different enough from the designs of the market’s main players.
Mitre were once top of the tree and now have to settle for second fiddle in most cases, but do so in solid fashion.
The Delta Max is a modern throw for Mitre and stands out when used in the EFL, SPFL and FA Cup. It would be easy to deploy a plain white ball for the cheap nostalgia pop, but they use an angled and detailed design all around.
Used as Barcelona wrapped up the second treble in the club’s history, the match ball for the 2014/15 Champions League final was a solid blend of modern and classic.
White was used as the base colour in traditional fashion, while the now iconic stars remained throughout. But to spice things up, those stars were very multi-coloured and incorporated elements of Berlin, the city hosting the final. Not too in your face, but still feels new.
People are still warming to the MLS – at the rate of an old, half broken microwave – but one thing they do well is making their league look great.
The American top flight partners exclusively with adidas for ball and kit supplies, with the 2021 match ball being a fine effort. Incorporating the nation’s colours smartly, the design isn’t too in your face and wraps around the panels perfectly.
Euro 2008 was everywhere, and it felt like you could stumble across the match ball in every single shop you visited.
The use of silver and black with the slightest hint of red is rather cool and looked different, although the large black circles dotted around the ball won’t be to everyone’s taste.
Having to take the reigns from the undisputed champions of the match ball was a serious task for Derbystar, but they did the Bundesliga justice in 2018/19.
The name needed some work, but the ball looked different to the designs of the big names and was a solid blend of colours. If Nike or adidas put it out, nobody would’ve complained. A touch safe, but it did what it needed to.
After a decade of rather outlandish designs, Nike looked for a new template in what was a bit of a modern classic for the 2010/11 season.
The tracer design took a bit of getting used to, but actually worked really well and was a genuinely refreshing look after years of large, dominant design. It also allowed Nike to refine into more interesting designs in the following seasons.
Having established themselves with a flawless design for the Champions League match ball, adidas freshened things up in the 2005/06 final.
The Finale Paris came to life with a splash of French grace, with a tricolour scheme of the French flag surrounding the ball. Not the most perfectly executed as the time went on, but a fresh take on the design at the time.
Introduced ahead of the 2019 Women’s World Cup, adidas went all out modern with the Conext 19 and it paid dividends.
It just looked entirely different from most things being produced, and was the icing on the cake of a great tournament. A fusion of colours were broken up by angular white panels in the same template as the 2018 World Cup ball, although you couldn’t quite tell, which is testament to it’s sleek look.
Admittedly, the design used for the 2017 MLS season is a little more in your face. But that’s the beauty of it.
The Nativo 3 uses splashes of the American and Canadian flags around the ball in dark colours and a harsh cross design, highlighted by the masses of white. It’s a little more risky, but it pays off well.
Not the first Telstar in this list, adidas reused an old name ahead of the 2018 Russia World Cup.
A move away from the eccentric designs of previous tournaments, the Telstar leant on the traditional 12 panel, black and white football design, but broke it up with a digitised effect and hints of colour in the final ball. Not quite as risky, but it looked the part.
It’s not the most aesthetically pleasing, but my word is it a work of art.
The 2008 Africa Cup of Nations played with a ball that was like no other. Getting the absolute most out of the 2006 World Cup template, the ball combined a flurry of bold colours and didn’t hold back. Better yet, we’ve had nothing quite like it since, which makes it feel that bit more special.
You need to Google this ball to appreciate its beauty.
With the finale design introduced, adidas gave the stars a jet black colour swap in 2002 and 2003 and the match ball looked box office. Zinedine Zidane smashing it on the volley beyond Bayer Leverkusen in 2002. Peak Gazprom.
After a few years of more reserved design, Nike upped the ante ahead of the 2015/16 season and tinged their main event match ball with a burst of colour.
The Premier League played with an Ordem 3 that saw hot red fade into white. Complete with a volt swoosh and a black, grid-like finish, Leicester shocked the world with this ball as they finished top of the lot in England.
There are an unrelenting number of memories attached to this ball across just about every age group.
The sign of the early Premier League Years, Mitre carried the top flight through the mid-to-late 1990s and into the 21st Century with the Ultimax. And while Manchester United dominated on the pitch with it, school kids and football fans across England were getting skin grafts for taking it to the thigh on a cold day. Harrowing.
With refresh needed ahead of the 1978 World Cup, adidas introduced the Tango to the world. Moving away from the 12 panel design, the Tango added modern edge to the ball with sleek, black lines travelling all around to create a more intricate pattern. It’s so good that it’s still sold today.
Ah yes, the ball that was simply too perfect.
When the Jabulani was deployed at the 2010 World Cup, teams and goalkeepers in particular complained heavily about how the ball was too round and light, making its flight path impossible to control or read. Looked great, though, and made for silly goals. Bring it back.
Think Tango, but better.
No, not Fanta Orange. The Tricolore was introduced by adidas ahead of the 1998 World Cup, with the Tango undergoing a bit of a French makeover. Black turned to blue, and hits of red and white swoops were etched into the harder lines. More modern, completely re-energised and capped off by France winning on home ground.
After the complete meltdown over ball physics at the 2010 World Cup, adidas deflected eyes to the design of their ball at Brazil 2014.
The Brazuca introduced a new, more reliable panel structure. Better yet, the ball’s design worked with the panels seamlessly, combining bright colours which perfectly captured the feel of the tournament. Calculated chaos and severely hard to better.
With the T90 tracer design introduced, Nike refinied their efforts for 2011/12 with a more mean yet infinitely better football.
The Seitiro saw the ball wrapped in digitalised flames and was immediately more interesting than the squared off tracers of the season previous. The Barclays was in full swing, too, with Sergio Aguero winning Manchester City the Premier League at the death, and Papiss Cisse scoring one of the game’s greatest ever strikes against Chelsea.
This one slips under the radar far too often. Perhaps it was ahead of its time.
The Teamgeist was a seriously modern design curated for the 2006 World Cup in Germany. A new panel layout with the design to follow, long and curved black rings accented a white ball that was lightyears ahead of the design from four years previous. Innovative.
Nike had tried to get creative before adidas’ 2006 effort when they became Premier League match ball suppliers.
In 2000, they introduced the Geo Merlin which modernised the traditional approach with a darker grid design that made the ball look like it had fallen straight out of space at the time. A later iteration saw it stick around until 2004.
The reason why we get all the designs we do today.
If you had to explain or draw a football to an alien, you’d be drawing the original adidas Telstar from the 1970 World Cup. The three stripes brand kicked off a new era in football design by bringing the black and white, 12 panel football onto the world stage as Brazil won their third title.
Visions of a young Wayne Rooney wrapping his boot around this and sending it towards goal at ungodly speeds.
Nike modernised the Premier League further in 2004 with the effort, introducing wrap around stripes and a winter ball in yellow and blue that was so striking, it earned a 2019 re-release. The streets won’t forget this one.
Before rampant modernisation and an obsession with match ball science took over, adidas decked out the 2002 World Cup with a seriously unique design.
Tinged with an off-white, ever so slight gold base colour, the Fevernova was complete with deeper gold triangular graphics, accented with red and green at an immense 2002 World Cup where Brazil snatched the trophy for a fifth time. See also: Ronaldo balling out with his infamous haircut. Memories galore.
Topping the list is the ball that shaped the culture of the pinnacle of European football’s elite competition.
The first ever adidas Champions League match ball is the pinnacle of Gazprom. Introduced in 2001, the Finale was white and completed with an interlocked, silver star design. Its first final was Milan 2001, with Oliver Kahn stopping it three times in a penalty shootout to ensure victory for Bayern Munich. The design is the greatest in football and will never grow tiring.