Soccer loves to redesign the ball

Wed, Dec 9

Have you seen the new soccer ball for next year's World Cup? It's called "Jabulani" (isiZulu for "to celebrate"), and it's the latest spin on the classic checked soccer ball design, just like the 2006 ball and all the other World Cup balls from the past 40 years.

The checked design and its assorted variations have become so iconic that it's easy to forget soccer balls used to look very different. World Cup balls over the years have looked like a shrunken head (1930), a round football (1934) and a pumpkin (1954), among other things. The checked design -- called the Telstar, because its black and white pattern was designed to be visible on television, plus it looked like a communications satellite with the same name -- didn't make its World Cup debut until 1970.

It's a little weird that soccer redesigns its ball so frequently, no? A baseball looks like, you know, a baseball, period. Same thing with a football, although the ones used in high school and college have those white stripes at the ends (plus rival pro leagues occasionally have come up with their own designs, and the old All-American Football Conference briefly experimented with a white ball for night games). Over on the hardcourt, the NBA tried to introduce a new ball design three years ago, but the reaction was so overwhelmingly negative that the league honchos quickly scrapped the whole idea.

Soccer, meanwhile, continues to tinker with its ball design -- at least on the field. But for most people, the checked Telstar design is the gold standard. Google the term "soccer ball," and you get Telstar-o-rama. Pretty much the same thing if you Google "soccer cartoon," even though the classic checked style hasn't been used in the World Cup, or in any other major pro league, in ages.

Seems like the more they change it, the more it stays the same -- at least in the public mind.