Three years ago, Jens Heilmann began a project to photograph the footballs used in every World Cup final. From the introduction to a new book, The World Cup Balls, Norbert Thomma describes how they were painstakingly tracked down

Internet searches on World Cup footballs showed only that they had been badly photographed. There was scant information about the originals. Apparently the world was only interested in goals and artistic overhead kicks, in saved penalties and vicious fouls, in posing winners and fallen idols. But the single item they all fight over was often ignored.

Jens Heilmann began experimenting with photographic techniques. There should be no hard edges or dominant reflections, no dark side. He knew that the balls would have a variety of different, shiny surfaces. White does not work well with a white background. Colour seems too pushy. So black was chosen. 

Heilmann went to the headquarters of the German Football Association in Frankfurt where the 1954 final ball is kept in a vault. Then on to the National Football Museum in Preston for the 1930 and 1966 balls, and the Museo Del Calcio in Florence where another three were secured on film. He carried five aluminium crates of equipment, including camera, tripods, flash generators, lamps and film cassettes. But above all, Heilmann learned to wait and not to despair when he was sent down the wrong path. It could take months until a chance to shoot a single picture presented itself.

There were setbacks. Publishing houses and literary agents shrugged their shoulders. Companies and football associations didn’t show any interest in co-operating. In the summer of 2009, the project came close to being cancelled. So Heilmann decided to publish the book independently with graphic designer Gunther Weis, while journalist Lars Reichardt wrote the accompanying text.

There were doubts about the authenticity of the ball from 1950. FIFA kept quiet and ball manufacturers could not help. At each World Cup, dozens of balls were used and it wasn’t always clear which one was really used in the final. Heilmann flew to the National Soccer Hall in Oneonta, New York State, and had another ball under his belt – the only reliably documented one from 1950. 

In October 2009, the photographer came across a name that proved crucial. René Sopp, a well-known collector of all things football, lived in Leipzig and networked with other experts all over the world. The footballs of 1990, 2002 and 2006 are from Sopp’s collection. Then collector Roger Saur airfreighted the 1994 and 1998 balls from New York. On the return trip, these assets very nearly got lost. 

At Christmas 2009, Heilmann flew to see Francisco Aquino in Guadalajara on the Pacific coast of Mexico and photographed the only documented ball from 1970. Aquino had flatly refused to send it to Germany, not even by secure art transport. It is his biggest treasure.

Another tip-off led to Erich Linemayr in Linz, an Austrian World Cup referee – 1974 and 1978 could be now checked off. The Sportmuseum Schweiz in Basel, Switzerland, was helpful, providing another ball from 1954, plus 1962 and 1966. Dino Maas, a collector from near Dusseldorf, contributed an original ball and was also able to help with the 1986 and 2006 balls.

Finally there was a meeting in Stockholm with Bengt Agren, a member of the committee responsible for choosing the official ball for the 1958 World Cup from among the 102 balls sent in by manufacturers worldwide. So now, after thousands of emails, endless calls and long hours brooding over the design and production, Jens Heilmann and Gunther Weis can finally announce that their mission is accomplished.

The limited edition 60-page book features the 18 original balls of every World Cup between 1930 and 2006. It is now available from

From WSC 281 July 2010

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