The Evolution of the Soccer Ball

The Adidas match balls ahead of the UEFA Champions League on October 22, 2019, in Brugge, Belgium. (Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)

More than 240 million people in over 200 countries play soccer and the earliest form of the game dates back thousands of years. However, the beautiful game hasn’t always been as advanced as it is today – our ancestors played with skulls, stitched-up cloth, and even animal bladders before the invention of vulcanized rubber! 

Thanks to the non-stop progress of technology, players use advanced gear and technology and fans can engage with the game with online sports betting. Technology has served us in many ways, and the soccer ball is no exception. Read on as we take a look at the origin, history and evolution of the soccer ball.

The earliest forms of a ball

The game of soccer has a rich history. From the history of the sport and its rules to the traditions and history of soccer betting. But the ball itself has a fascinating and sometimes bizarre history. Let’s go right back to the beginning and look at the earliest forms of the ball used in our favorite sports. 

Chinese “Tsu Chu”

“Tsu Chu” was a popular game in China from as early as 2500 BC. Tsu means “to kick the ball with feet,” and Chu means “a stuffed ball made of leather.” Tsu Chu players would dribble balls made of animal skin into nets tied between two poles. The game was played on the emperor’s birthday and became the first exhibition match in ancient China. It was also a part of the physical education training for soldiers during the Ts’in Dynasty.

Egyptian rites

In Ancient Egypt, a game similar to soccer existed. The balls used were made of seeds wrapped in linen, one of which has even been found in a tomb. Later, balls of animal skin were used to give better bounce. 

Did you think ancient history had no effect on soccer betting lines? Well, Egypt’s early head start in the game might be why the national soccer team has won the African Cup a record seven times. 

Aztec and Maya civilizations

It is said that the Aztec and Maya civilizations, and likely other South American civilizations too, used a light, elasticized ball made from a natural latex found in the wood of the rubber tree. The Aztecs may also have been one of the first civilizations to play a version of soccer. 

Greeks and Romans

Around 2000 BC, the Ancient Greeks developed a game called “Episkyros,” where a small ball made of hair and wrapped in linen was kicked and thrown – similar to rugby or football. Later, the Romans adopted the game, renaming it “Harpastum,” meaning “the small ball game.” It became part of the Roman army’s physical fitness program during Julius Caesar’s reign.

The Middle Ages

Soccer had already become a popular game by the Medieval times. The balls they used in those days were made from inflated pig’s bladders. However, these lacked shape and retention and were easily ruptured. The size and shape of each ball also varied depending on the pig. Later, people started to cover the bladders with leather, making them rounder and more durable.

The birth of the soccer ball as we know it

In 1836, Charles Goodyear, an American chemist and manufacturing engineer, discovered vulcanized rubber. He patented it in 1844 and designed and created the first vulcanized ball in 1855. This marked the birth of the soccer ball as we know it today. Goodyear started exploring natural rubber in the 1830s and soon dedicated his life to developing stable and durable rubber. After many years of experimentation, Goodyear developed vulcanized rubber in a small factory he owned in Springfield, Massachusetts.

In 1863, the newly-established English Football Association gathered to discuss the laws of the game. There was no description of the ball at this meeting, but in the 1872 revision, it was decided that the ball “must be spherical with a circumference of 27 to 28 inches.” This law remains unchanged in FIFA laws today. The official weight of the soccer ball was fixed in 1872 at 13 to 15 ounces and was changed slightly in 1937 to 14 to 16 ounces. 

The founding of the English Football League in 1888 saw the start of the mass production of soccer balls. To retain the shape of the ball, strong leather and highly skilled cutters and stitchers were important factors in the production process. Top-quality leather covers were made from the rump of a cow, while lower-grade covers were made from the shoulder. Soccer balls were made with various leather panels. The design had laces at one point to protect the inner bladder. Interlocking panels were later introduced to give balls a rounder shape.

The progression of soccer balls from the 20th century to today

Let’s take a look at the materials and design of soccer balls and how they progressed from the 20th century to the modern age. 

Vintage soccer ball photographed in studio in Los Angeles, California, 2010. (Photo by John Kanuit/Sports Studio Photos/Getty Images)

Soccer balls of the early 20th century

By the start of the 20th century, soccer balls were made of strong rubber bladders. The inner tubes were covered with heavy leather, which allowed for a good bounce. Most of the balls had a hand-stitched leather cover with 18 sections – six panels and three stripes. The cover had a 6-inch slit where the deflated bladder could be inserted and then pumped up via a long-stem neck. Once the ball was inflated, the tube was pushed back into the cover and the slit was laced up firmly. However, these balls couldn’t hold air for long periods of time and needed to be reinflated often, even during matches.

Second World War soccer ball enhancements

Despite the continuous improvement to soccer balls, they would still often burst during the middle of matches. This was because of poor leather quality. During the Second World War, a structural layer of strong cloth was added between the bladder and the outer cover of the ball, making it stronger and allowing better control and consistency over the overall shape of the ball.

Waterproof and synthetic materials

Though leather balls had played a necessary part in the evolution of the game, they certainly had their shortcomings. For example, they became very heavy under rainy conditions due to the high water absorption of the leather. This extra weight was dangerous, and countless head injuries were caused by wet soccer balls. By the 1950s, non-porous materials and synthetic paints were used to make the balls more waterproof. Eventually, the laced slit was also removed and a new valve was introduced, creating a smoother, more regular ball.

Balls made entirely of synthetic materials were introduced in the 1960s, though the general opinion was that leather balls were more consistent in flight and had a better bounce. As such, it wasn’t until the late 1980s that the improved synthetic balls completely replaced leather balls, with a fully synthetic ball first used in the FIFA World Cup finals in 1986. Modern balls are made of synthetic material that emulates the quality and structure of leather.

The modern soccer ball

Traditional black-and-white soccer ball on a field.

These days there is an endless variety of cool soccer balls. Many incredible innovations have taken place, thanks to the FIFA World Cup competitions, with Adidas providing a new ball design for each tournament. With custom soccer balls becoming all the rage, here are some of the most influential changes.

1970s Black-and-white soccer ball

The black-and-white soccer ball is a world-famous icon and was made by Adidas for the 1970 World Cup. It was composed of 32 panels, 20 of which were white and 12 black. This wasn’t solely for aesthetics; the color contrast made it more perceptible on black-and-white televisions. Two updated versions of the Adidas Telstar were made for the 1974 World Cup, and FIFA announced it as the first official soccer ball in the history of the tournament.

2006 Adidas Teamgeist soccer ball

Adidas continued to innovate on the soccer ball design at the 2006 FIFA World Cup by replacing the common 32-panel-ball with a 14-panel design. The ball was called the “Teamgeist” – which means “team spirit” in German. The panels were bonded together rather than stitched. The lesser number of panels and absence of inner stitching made the ball both smoother and rounder, allowing for greater control and better play.

2010 Adidas Jabulani soccer ball

From 32 to 14 to eight panels, Adidas continued to improve the design in the 2010 World Cup. It aptly named its new eight-panel design “Jabulani,” meaning “celebrate” in Zulu. The new design, made of improved polyurethane materials and fewer panels, boosted the feel and behavior of the ball.

The future of soccer balls

The Official Nike Premier League match ball for the 2020/21 soccer season. (Photo by Visionhaus/Getty Images)

Sportswear manufacturer Nike now produces balls for most of the world’s leading leagues. One of its recent designs, the Maxim, is said to be the most powerful and accurate soccer ball ever made. It boasts a perfectly spherical shape, five-layer casing, evenly distributed pressure, and micro-textured casing that regulates airflow equally across the outer surface. The Maxim has undergone rigorous testing in wind tunnels, ultimately resulting in more precise shots, less drag in flight, and greater distances for optimal energy expenditure from players.

Who knows if the soccer ball will ever truly be perfected. One thing is certain – it’s come a long way since its days of linen, skulls, and pig’s bladders! Now that you know your beloved soccer stars are using the best equipment and balls, put them to the test with a soccer bet. 

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