According to official FIFA regulations, a soccer ball must be spherical, made of leather or another suitable material, the circumference must be between 68 and 70cm, the weight must be between 410 and 450g, and the internal pressure must be between .6 and 1.1 atmospheres. Within these regulations, however, there can be a lot of variation.
The history of the modern soccer ball began in 1862 with the invention of the rubber bladder. Prior to this, ball makers had relied on pigs’ bladders to provide shape and structure for the leather exterior of the ball. The new rubber bladders had several advantages over their predecessors. Whereas pig bladders vary in shape and size from one pig to the next, these new rubber bladders could be manufactured to have specific dimensions. They were also far tougher and more durable than the pigs’ bladders, which meant they could last longer and had to be replaced less frequently. One consequence of this was that ball size could now be standardized. Ten years later, in 1872, the English Football Association did just that by creating a set of regulations for ball size very similar to the ones listed above (with some minor differences in weight and size).
Balls could also now be mass produced. Everywhere in England, you could play with balls that had the same size and weight and that would behave the same when they were kicked. This standardization meant that teams from varying parts of England could play against each other without having to worry about variations in what ball the home team decided to use.
The balls of this time were still, however, far less advanced than their modern counterparts. For one, the outer layer was constructed using strips of leather that were hand-stitched together. Under rough conditions (such as being kicked around for 90 minutes), the stitching would often break down, and the ball would fall apart. Furthermore, the fact that the outer layers of the ball were leather meant that they would readily absorb water, making them much heavier than their original weight and making them far more dangerous to hit with your head.
In the 1940’s this problem was partially solved. Extra materials meant to add strength were added to the outer layers of the ball, and protective coatings were added to the exterior to prevent water absorption. The real solution, however, came in the 1960’s when the use of synthetic balls became widespread. New synthetic materials were designed to behave like leather, but were far more durable and water resistant. They were also much cheaper and easier to mass produce than the previous generations of balls.
Innovation within the soccer ball manufacturing industry seems to have stagnated as of late. There seem to be no large improvements like the introduction of rubber bladders or the development of synthetic exterior left to make. Companies, however, are still striving to create better soccer balls. They are deploying advanced engineering techniques to create a ball with as few irregularities of movement as possible while still complying with FIFA’s official rules. Although advancements in ball technology have produced several missteps, such as the 2010 World Cup’s Jabulani ball, overall, modern soccer balls are the most advanced and predictable in behavior in the history of the game.
Despite the rich history of the soccer ball and the advanced technology that has contributed to producing the balls used in professional matches around the world, part of the beauty of soccer is its simplicity. All that you need to play is a ball. It doesn’t matter if the ball is perfectly spherical or precisely weighted, and it doesn’t matter whether the ball is made of paper, cloth, leather, or plastic, all that matters is that it rolls and you can kick it.
“Laws of the Game,” FIFA, last modified 2013. Accessed April 17, 2016. http://www.fifa.com/mm/document/footballdevelopment/refereeing/81/42/36/log2013en_neutral.pdf
“Soccer Ball History,” Epic Sports. Accessed April 17, 2016. http://soccer.epicsports.com/soccer-ball-history.html
“The History of the Soccer Ball,” Soccer Ball World. Accessed April 17, 2016. http://www.soccerballworld.com/History.htm
I really enjoyed this post, because it reminded me of many different things! Throughout my childhood, we never really had a soccer ball. We made them out of a ton of different material, whether it was tinfoil, a volleyball, and many other materials. It made me remember how simple and beautiful the game is supposed to be, and that you don’t need to have the newest, best soccer ball to have a love of the game. I also remember in high school my geography teacher wanted to explain to us the history of soccer (for reasons that I still don’t understand why), and reading this brought back his lesson from my sophomore year.
I also thought about the New England Patriots controversy in the playoffs, otherwise known as “DeflateGate”. In it, the Patriots were accused of deflating the footballs to a psi level below the minimum for a competitive advantage. With all of the variation in soccer, I am curious to know if there is any possible way to have a controversy such as this. Part of me believes that the reason for the variation is so different teams can play with their preference, unlike in the NFL where there is just one set of rules that everyone must follow. This way, they save themselves from an unnecessary controversy.
Quite an interesting post, I never knew pigs’ bladders were used to provide shape and structure for the earliest footballs. In regards to the innovation of footballs, there exists a very fine line between creating an improved football and creating a dud. The Jabulani ball is a perfect example of this fine line of football creation. What appeared to be the new style of footballs with 8 spherical panels and a smoother surface, ended up being inconsistent and disliked by many players and coaches. Tests conducted by NASA revealed the Jabulani ball’s greatest knuckling effect occurred around speeds of 50-55 mph, whereas the typical ball, such as the Brazuca from the 2014 World Cup, produced the greatest knuckling effect around 30 mph, hence creating the inconsistencies reported. On a different note, one constructive innovation is the use of technology in balls to measure metrics such as striking force, spin, distance, and speed. Teams and individuals have used this data to modify position roles and tweak shots.
This post has reminded me of a coach from my youth who was from a poor region in Brazil and always told us stories about how him and his friends would go kick around a crummy old leather bound ball that was lopsided for hours and experience no less enjoyment than playing with a perfectly spherical one. While in professional play the ball should be kept to a standard for all games to make very match fair, your point about how the beauty of the game lies in its simplicity and ability to be played anywhere made me think about how the experiences of the children in the slums of Brazil fit into this grand idea of soccer. Their story, in a way, highlights this idea that no matter how hard you try to control it and force it to do your bidding, the ball can still roll in anyway. Sometimes you can have extended moments in games where everything is predictable and running smoothly and it seems like the ball is a perfect sphere that can be manipulated with ease, but at the drop of the hat everything turns around it seems like every pass and every dribble is too hard, too soft, or off target. In this way it is fruitless to attempt to remove the irregularities in ball movements with technology because they are a part of the game and will always exist no matter what you do. Like my coach always taught us, soccer is a game that reflects life, you can do everything right as a team and as an individual but sometimes the ball just doesn’t roll in your favor.
Interesting topic! I fully agree that part of the beauty of soccer is the simplicity of the game, but I also believe that it is the unpredictable nature. You may wait 85 minutes for a goal– but then you are surprised with a sudden burst of excitement and action. The best players have to quickly get a feel for the ball and have the quickest reactions. Do we really need to rely on technology to further simplify and reduce any irregularities in the movement of the ball?
I loved the idea you captured in your last paragraph- it reminds me of a passage from the book we read “Le Ventre d’Atlantique” where a group of young boys in Niodior, Senegal (who dreamed of going to play for a French club team) rolled up sponges and other random materials they could find just to have a pick up game. This simplicity of soccer is is unifying… anyone can play no matter their circumstance.
Glad to get an insight into the history of the ball. I, for one, do not find the permitted ranges of dimension for the ball to be concerning or alarming. However, I was a bit surprised to see even that much variability in a game so governed by strict rules. In particular, it is surprising that the ball can vary in pressure from 0.6 to 1.1. That means the upper bound is twice as pressurized I would assume, but perhaps in reality, that does not feel much different when kicking the ball or using your head.
Something I would be interested in discovering is if certain materials and internal pressures are being optimized to reduce head injury or trauma due to long-term repetitive heading of the ball.