By: Zara Harvey
There’s no question that the most popular soccer ball design in the world is the classic Telstar. First used during the 1968 European Football Championship, the now-iconic pattern comprised of 12 black polygons and 20 white hexagons and eventually became the official match ball of the 1970 FIFA World Cup in Mexico. Today, the same design is used to portray soccer across nearly every type of media. Despite its global popularity, not many are aware that this design was directly lifted from ancient mathematical writings. In fact, the Telstar pattern is an exact replica of the truncated icosahedron – one of the first 13 solids discussed by the mathematician Archimedes, in the 3rd century BC. Who would be clever enough to adapt an ancient Archimedean solid into one of the most popular sports icons in the world?
No, it wasn’t Richard Buckminster Fuller. That’s just a myth that used to circulate the internet. Although the 20th century systems theorist and inventor was the perfect candidate to come up with such a brilliant idea, Fuller actually had nothing to do with inventing the modern soccer ball. Instead, his most famous invention is perhaps the Geodesic Dome, a gorgeous, triangle-based glass dome which Fuller envisioned as the living and working space of the future. While here on Past Daily we are familiar with the man’s visionary ideas, we can also tell you that Fuller was in his 70s when the Telstar soccer ball took off. The famous architect never talked about soccer anywhere in his massive body of work. It’s one of those sports myths that should truly be laid to rest.
With that being said, the man who was actually responsible for the modern soccer ball design was Eigil Nielson. Treehugger confirms that it was this Danish soccer player who came up with the design back in 1962. Adidas’ decision to use the same pattern later in 1970 basically sealed the deal for it to become the standard match ball for many more World Cups to come.
The Telstar ball wasn’t just a sleek combination of ancient mathematics and modern industrial design. The black and white pattern on the Adidas Telstar actually made the ball more visible for black and white broadcasts. During the 1970 World Cup which Ladbrokes recounts was the first World Cup ever to be broadcast in full color, the Television Star or Telstar for short, stood out even better against the background. In fact, the now-generic and common design was at the time considered to be a technological marvel. Before color TV, televised soccer matches used traditional solid, dark-colored leather soccer balls, which apart from resembling volleyballs were difficult to see on television. In short, the evolution of the 20th century soccer ball was necessary for both black and white and full-color broadcast of the sport, which basically paved the way for soccer’s global popularity today.
Since then, the Telstar pattern has become the foundation for all of Adidas’ official match ball designs. The most recent iteration of this pattern is the Telstar 18. Apart from coming with a look that legitimately pays tribute to the 1970 original, Popular Science reports that the Telstar 18 is perhaps “as close to a perfect sphere as you can get.” Designed to avoid knuckling, the official ball of the 2018 World Cup features subtle dimples as well as six thermally bonded panels that allow it to fly through the air with stability. While many players complained about how the Telstar 18 was inconsistent with the pro balls used in training and previous matches, it ultimately proved to be worthy of the Telstar name. We can only imagine what they’ll come up with next for the 2022 World Cup.