The soccer ball’s history is as rich, protracted and varied as the game it serves. Although their evolution can be traced to ancient history and cultures, the history dates back to more recent times – the 19th century. Indeed, soccer is well over a century old and the modern, high-tech ball has come a very long way from the irregular-shaped pig’s bladder.
Before the English Football Association prescribed qualities and measurements for the football, game-play was subject to the vagaries of the size and shape of a pig’s bladder. Naturally, this presented problems as players found it difficult to judge the bounce and direction of the bladder. In addition, footballs made with animal bladders tended to deteriorate rapidly.
In 1855, Charles Goodyear developed the first rubber football. A process known as vulcanization (the process of converting rubber into more durable materials) helped to accelerate the development of the soccer ball. Vulcanized rubber was able to withstand pressure and avoid deformity.
In 1862, further development took place with H. Lindon’s innovation – the inflatable rubber bladder. Ten years later, the English FA introduced specifications concerning the size of the ball (27 inches – 28 inches in circumference) and its weight (13 ounces – 15 ounces). FA approved soccer balls also had an outer case of leather. Lindon’s inflatable rubber bladder provided the template that the game would use for decades.
In the early 20th century, the balls were made with more durable rubber. These balls were encased in tanned leather panels that were stitched together. The leather casing of the balls made heading difficult, especially as the leather was very absorbent. This posed a problem with balls that were made with genuine leather. Manufacturers attempted to mitigate absorption by coating leather exteriors in synthetic paints and other non-porous materials.
The year 1950 yielded another significant change – the white ball. This was made by white-washing the leather. The aim of using the white ball was to increase the ball’s visibility for the benefit of spectators. Sometimes, when watching old clips, one might notice that orange balls were also used in the 50s. These were also created to improve visibility in snowy conditions.
Prior to the 1970s, there was also another significant development in soccer ball design – the Buckminster ball. This was a change from the balls made with panels of leather stitched together. Instead of panels, hexagons were stitched together. This design became a very popular design that is still utilized by modern soccer ball manufacturers.
The 1960s saw the introduction of synthetic soccer balls. These balls were designed with synthetic leather, but they did not replace leather balls until the 1980s. The last time that a leather ball was used in the FIFA World Cup was in Spain 1982 (Adidas’ Tango Espana).
The Azteca by Adidas was the first synthetic ball used in a FIFA World Cup. Modern soccer balls used a combination of synthetic leather and polystyrene foam, which improved their touch, acceleration and velocity. Major soccer ball manufacturers are continuing to experiment with their designs in an effort to improve goal-scoring and offensive strategies.
The modern soccer ball is highly evolved in terms of materials and design. Other than that, the ball specifications have not changed a lot over the decades. The modern soccer ball is lighter, non-absorbent, more durable, and provides better game-play through hi-tech design.