My first encounter with the Adidas Tango soccer ball came in the late 1980s, when I was just a stupid tiny person who thought the coolest part about soccer was that you got to wear “shields” on your shins and eat free oranges. Due to a scheduling conflict, I’d arrived extremely early for my game and found a soccer ball sitting to the side of the field. It was soft and made of real leather and looked and felt infinitely cooler than the black-and-white spotted balls made of saran wrap and sheet metal that I was used to playing with. On it was the name of a partner dance that rose in popularity during the end of the 19th century along the Argentina/Uruguay border, although I didn’t know that at the time, because my parents didn’t yet trust me with maps.
But just as I was about to show everyone how skilled I was at toeing this amazing Latin dance ball in indiscriminate directions, a coach came over and took it from me. “That isn’t for you,” I remember him saying. “That’s for the older, good players.” And though he probably could’ve just said “older kids” and gotten his point across without destroying my nascent fragile self-confidence, the fact remained with me: First you achieved greatness. Then you got to Tango.
The Adidas Tango soccer ball, created for the 1978 World Cup in Argentina, is inarguably the greatest, most iconic soccer ball ever made. Its elegant, handsome style—that interlocking triad design creating seven circles within the overall sphere—was a revelation at a time when most of the soccer balls had opted for the black-and-white “Buckminster” archetype, named after an American architect who discovered the design while trying to construct buildings using as few materials as possible. The Tango was not only made of real leather but coated in that shiny Durlast waterproofing, and it was so expensive (50 pounds at the time, or 250 pounds nowadays) that purchasing it actually meant something. Namely, that you were to be taken seriously. Or just really rich.
But now that we know the apex of the World Cup soccer ball pyramid, what, as they say in that 2000 Robert Zemeckis film starring Harrison Ford, lies beneath? In order to find out, I polled soccer friends, pro players, and a Dutch guy who claims he knew Arjen Robben as a teenager. Then I ignored their opinions and ranked every other Adidas World Cup ball ever used according to my own whims. So here they are, from worst to second best:
12. Fevernova (Korea/Japan 2002)
For one, this was the first WC ball in 24 years that didn’t feature the Tango style and instead opted for some sort of “Asian-culture inspired” design that looked like what a triangle looks like if you’re on hallucinogens, so that was strike one. Two, Adidas added to it “a refined syntactic foam layer for a more precise flight path”, which ended up making the ball extremely light and behave—as Italy’s Gianluigi Buffon famously put it—like “a ridiculous kiddie’s bouncing ball.” Strike three was that ridiculous name, Fevernova, which sounds like a Marvel comic superhero whose special powers involve elevating his body temperature and getting tested at the hospital for Kawasaki disease. Not a great ball.
11. Questra (USA, 1994)
You know what Questra means? It means “the quest for the stars.” That was the theme of the ball created for the American World Cup, allegedly to celebrate our space program, or the Star Tours ride at Universal, or something. Whatever the case, this ball has space scenes in its interlocking triads that look like they were doodled by a middle schooler who was asked to draw exploding planets and whatever he thought a supernova was. Adidas developed this ball out of new materials and polystyrene foam, which apparently allowed for greater acceleration when kicked, but I can’t speak to that because I’m too busy star questing.
10. Telstar (Mexico, 1970)
The original Adidas World Cup ball should be a classic, but—as with any first iteration—there were bugs: it didn’t yet feature the Durlast waterproofing system, the gold lettering looks dodgy, and its name references the TV satellites that were broadcasting the game live for the first time. It’s like if they called the 2014 ball the “ESPN.”
9. Telstar Durlast (West Germany, 1974)
The second iteration gets a slight bump, for its black lettering, the waterproof coating, and—in an Apple-esque move—the inclusion of an alternative version called the “Chile Durlast” that was a sleek, covetable all-white.
8. Tango España (Spain, 1982)
So, as we've been hinting at, one of the issues with the all-leather balls of yesteryear was the waterproofing. The “Durlast” coating helped, but many still let in moisture around the seams. The Tango España was supposed to improve on the original (which we now know to be IMPOSSIBLE) by offering rubber inlaid over said seams. But it turns out when you kick a ball a bunch, that rubber starts to wear, and, you know, stop working, so the España ended up having to be replaced several times per game, which is no bueno when you’re paying $250 per.
7. +Teamgeist (Germany, 2006)
Instead of the 32 panels a traditional ball has, the 2006 Teamgeist only had 14, and these were bonded, rather than stitched together, the idea being that the resulting ball is actually rounder and where it's struck won’t affect its flight arc. Awesome, right? Well… goalies, who, I’m starting to learn are the Statler and Waldorf of every World Cup, now had a problem with how heavy the ball was, saying it favored strikers. And the strikers, meanwhile, complained that the design made it hard to predict the ball's flight, especially on free kicks. Marketing people complained that you couldn’t trademark “teamgeist” because it meant “team spirit” in German, and so they had to add that ugly + sign into the mix. And I complained because I couldn’t afford that ball, so I bought a replica with 26 panels, and it was stolen the third day I brought it to a field, likely by a midfielder.
6. Jabulani (South Africa, 2010)
In a contest with the Jabulani, the +Teamgeist would’ve won major popularity awards. Despite its “grip and groove” technology and high-tech 3-D panels alleged to make the ball truly and perfectly round, doomsday prophets (er, keepers) called it “dreadful” (David James, England), and a “beach ball” (Iker Casillas, Spain). Field players called it “difficult to deal with” and “a disaster for strikers”, and even Lionel Messi—who, I’m pretty sure, was paid to promote the ball—called it “very complicated.” And yet, I’ve put it ahead of +Teamgeist, for two reasons: 1) aesthetically it’s a prettier ball, and 2) when playing in a men’s league game with it, I scored an improbable goal with my left foot, something that will likely never be replicated.
5. Etrusco (Italy, 1990)
This ball was the first of the Tango-styles to include a layer of black polyurethane foam and it featured Etruscan lion heads on the triads—because, Italy, history, etc. (You could also buy ugly, limited-edition Etrusco Adidas cleats that looked like someone working the floor in a sporting goods store had filled in the Adidas stripes using a red marker.) Anyway, I’m basically just ranking this lower than some others because I dislike the fact that the Italians invented catenaccio, aka the most boring of all soccer styles, and deserve some payback.
4. Tricolore (France, 1998)
Yes, yes, Adidas used an “underglass print technology with a thin layer of syntactic foam,” to make this ball, but the only real advancement here is that the ball is blue instead of black and white. It’s like FIFA was Pleasantville, and the Tricolore is Tobey Maguire, and, crap, this cultural translation I am going for isn't going to work. Anyway, it was a pretty good ball.
3. Brazuca (Brazil, 2014)
I’m ready to love this ball. It’s formed from six identical panels—you lose, Jabulani!—but here is the true game-changer: the panels have the long, deep seams of the more traditional hand-stitched balls, where you can actually see them, and this helps the Brazuca roll and fly more true, unlike its boomerang-esque predecessors. On top of that, Adidas tested this ball with all sorts of professional sides, and during Brazil’s different seasons, and at altitudes, and in a box, and with a fox, and everyone had good things to say. EVEN THE KEEPERS. We’ll see if that holds up.
2. Azteca (Mexico, 1986)
This was the first synthetic match ball, and the first coated in rain-thwarting polyurethane. On top of that, it was the first to have designs inspired by the host nation, and in its case the Aztecs murals were notably handsome. I also had this ball growing up, and would take it to Sprague field, and kick it against the backstop over there, until I got tired or stepped on glass.
1. Tango (Argentina, 1978)
But you already knew that.
Kevin Alexander, the executive editor of Thrillist, writes about soccer for Esquire.com.