Taken alone, the soccer balls used in the World Cup are wonders of sports engineering, honed over years in the lab for maximum aerodynamic punch.
But strip them down to their surface patterns, and they also function as far-out abstract art – something you could hang on the wall and use to divine the meaning of life during your next ayahuasca bender.
The patterns since the inaugural 1930 match evince an evolution akin to the past few centuries of Western art, from muddy-colored, organic globs that could blend with a John Constable landscape to Pop-esque text blasts to highly detailed jumbles reminiscent of digital-photo manipulations. Then there's 2014's design, shown above, which outwits any attempt at categorization – it looks like something a tattoo artist would put on Mike Tyson's face.
These surreal images of the World Cup's historical balls come courtesy of Science on a Sphere, a NOAA project that projects various planetary data onto a giant artificial Earth. (You might recall it modeling this year's "polar vortex.") The SOS folks have taken patterns from every tournament in the past 84 years and flattened them down like Mercator maps for 3-D projection purposes. Thus, 2006's "Teamgeist" would look like this in the room-sized SOS environment:
But in the 2-D realm it appears as these elegant line currents:
That's a tame sample, though. Let's take a look at some of the more eye-screwing soccer balls, beginning with one of the first to land on the field. This lumpy thing featured in 1930 in Uruguay and was made from hand-stitched leather with an access slit to an interior air bladder. (The old balls had problems with chronic deflation.) Splayed out like a skin, it resembles a wall panel in an alien mothership – venture through that incision and you emerge covered in mucus in front of a hissing queen xenomorph:
This bulbous ball used in the 1954 Switzerland competition was the first to feature color and had 18 intertwined panels to make it as spherical as possible. Flattened, it looks like one of those Magic Eye illusions: Cross your eyes and you can see the Michelin Man's blobby knuckles flying toward your face:
For the 1962 matches in Chile, proud countryman Custodio Zamora crafted a ball with a firm message, and it was... "CRACK." Perhaps a die-hard Cup historian can explain what that meant – maybe a reference to the bone-snapping sound that earlier leather balls elicited when players headed them?
Design-wise, the banana-hued ball was a bit of a curiosity. "It was composed of 18 irregular polygonal panels, having three different shapes: hexagonal, rectangular and hexagonal curved, all joined together by manual sewing, as if it were a kind of big puzzle," writes World Cup Balls. "It must be admitted, that the Crack model is still the ball most difficult to describe with words, because of the complexity of its panels."
With its Etruscan flourishes and roaring lions, this throwback from the 1990 rumble in Italy could double as a napkin pattern in an Old World restaurant chain. It also carries a Kara Walker cut-paper vibe, though without any meaningful social commentary:
"Fevernova"! The ball's name alone is enough to promote anxiety. And stretched out the ball – which took 3 years to build and included 32 panels – does threaten bloody harm with its flurry of jagged, throwing-star shapes.
"The golden (champagne) orb sports red flames in the motive of a shuriken which was chosen to symbolize the mammoth efforts and the energy [that] South Korea and Japan invested into the FIFA World Cup 2002," notes Soccer Ball World. "The red flames represent driving tenacity with the Ninja's star, a symbol of the technical achievements of the two industrial nations in the recent past."
The 2010 ball brings on the psychedelia with its intricate flows of shimmering colors that bamn! all of a sudden resolve into an owl-eyed face. Named "Jabulani," which means "to celebrate" in Zulu, the design is supposed to riff on South African traditions:
The "Brazuca" orb that's currently being kicked all over Brazil vies for the title of most mind-bending ball in World Cup history. The design was modeled after the wish bracelets that are popular in Brazilian culture, but squished down into two dimensions it comes across as part oil slick, part candy wrapper, and all grooviness. And in proper 3-D shape it still mystifies with its radioactive-marble presentation: