How the Soccer Ball Has Evolved Through the Ages

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

Today, 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, today’s fans can find sports odds and soccer betting odds at the click of a button. Technology has served us in many more ways, though, 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

Chinese ‘Tsu Chu’

“Tsu Chu” was a popular game in China from as early as 2500BC. 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. These people definitely had the right idea!

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.

Greeks and Romans

Around 2000BC, 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 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 English Football Association, which had been newly established, 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” – a law that remains unchanged in FIFA laws today. The official weight of the soccer ball was fixed in 1872 at 13-15 ounces, and was changed slightly in 1937 to 14-16 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 an important factor 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 with laces at one point to protect the inner bladder. Interlocking panels were later introduced to give balls a rounder shape.

The progression of the soccer ball

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 – as cow hides varied in thickness and strength. 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, making them somewhat dangerous. In fact, 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 (along with its heavy stitching,) 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. Today’s balls are made of synthetic material that emulates the quality and structure of leather but with lower water absorption.

The modern soccer ball

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

The most recent 2001 publication of the laws of the game has kept exactly the same rules as in the 1956 Encyclopedia of Association Football in terms of the size and weight of the soccer ball. Advances in design have, however, come with the development of the interlocking panels, which replaced the previous leather sections that met at the north and south “poles” of the ball. 

These days, of course, 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, some of the most influential changes are as follows:

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. The ball was named after the Telstar space satellite and 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 – and 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, aptly naming 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, labeling it as the most accurate ball ever.

Soccer balls of today

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

Sports brand manufacturers have done their best to design the perfect soccer ball. However, not all of these advances actually improved the game, with every small change affecting the aerodynamics and handling of the ball. In fact, the aforementioned Adidas Jabulani was hated by players in the 2010 World Cup, as it was found to move erratically in the air and change direction and speed sporadically, making players lose their confidence and stride.

John Eric Goff, Professor of Physics at the University of Lynchburg in Virginia, said, “You could argue that [the ball] is the most important piece of equipment in the most popular sport in the world.” The location of the seams and the texture of the ball’s surface create subtle elements that control how the ball moves. It’s up to manufacturers to create a ball that flies both evenly and consistently.

Sportswear manufacturer Nike now produces balls for most of the world’s leading leagues. Its most recent design, the Maxim, is said to be the most powerful and accurate soccer ball ever made, with its 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!

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