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