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History of the Soccer Ball 

Through out history, humans have enjoyed kicking a ball or something like a ball. South American Indians were known to use a light elasticized ball. However; rubber was not to be practically manufactured until a few thousand years later. 

According to historical references and legend, early balls ranged from human heads, stitched up cloth, animal and human skulls to pig or cow bladders.

The Chinese played 'tsu chu', in which animal-skin balls were dribbled through gaps in a net stretched between two poles. Certain ancient Egyptian rites are said by historians to have similarities with football, and both the ancient Greeks and Romans also played a game that entailed carrying and kicking a ball.

A Medieval custom was to take pig bladders used from live stock killed in preparation for winter sustenance and inflate them. They would play a game using their feet and hands to keep the "ball" in the air. (Sounds like hacky sack to me.)

The animal bladder balls were eventually covered with leather for better shape retention.

In 1836 Charles Goodyear patented vulcanized rubber. Prior to this, balls were dependant on the size and shape of the pig's bladder. The more irregular the bladder, the more unpredictable the behavior of the ball was when kicked. However; it would not be until the twentieth century until most balls were made with rubber bladders.

In 1855, Charles Goodyear designed and built the first vulcanized rubber soccer balls (footballs). 

In the 1862, H.J. Lindon developed one of the first inflatable rubber bladders for balls.  Tragically his wife previously died from lung disease. Reportedly from blowing up many hundreds of pig's bladders.  Lindon was probably inspired to develop the inflatable rubber bladder because of the ill effects of blowing up pig's bladders.  The balls with the rubber bladders ensured that the ball remained hard and oval. Lindon also claimed to have invented the rugby ball but did not patent the idea. 

In those days, the round ball was preferred because it was easier to kick and the oval ball was easier to handle.  (Hmm… the beginnings of ‘American Football’ and the passing game.)

In 1863 the newly formed English Football Association met to hammer out the laws of the game.  No description of the ball was offered in the first set of rules.  When the rules were revised in 1872 it was agreed that the ball "must be spherical with a circumference of 27 to 28 inches" (68.6 cm to 71.1 cm). That rule remains in today's FIFA laws.

The circumference shall not be more than 28 in., nor less than 27 in, while the weight at the start of the game must not be more that 16 oz., nor less than 14 oz." The Laws of the Game as published in 2001 say exactly the same thing as to size and weight. What has changed drastically over the last 30 or so years is the material the ball is made of and the shape of the panels that make up the ball.

By the 1900's bladders were made with stronger rubber and could withstand heavier pressure.  Most balls produced by that time used rubber bladders. The balls were made from inner tubes covered with heavy brown leather.  These balls would bounce easier and yet could be kicked. Most balls had a tanned leather cover with eighteen sections stitched together arranged in six panels of three strips each.  Each section was stitched together by hand with five-ply hemp and a small lace-up slit was on one side. All of the stitching was done with the ball cover inside out.  Once completed, the cover was reversed with the stitching on the inside.  An un-inflated bladder was then inserted through the slit.  A long stem neck (aperture) extending from the bladder was used to inflate the ball.  Once inflated, the tube was inserted through the 15 cm slit and then the opening was laced up tight. You can imagine how often that these soccer balls had to re-inflated.  Even during a game.

These balls were good for kicking but was painful when heading due to the heavy stitching and the water absorption characteristics of the leather. Water absorption of the leather during rain made the ball very heavy and caused many head injuries.  Other problems of the old leather balls were the various quality of cowhides used. Footballs varied in thickness and quality and the leather often degraded during the match.

1929 Soccer Ball 

Water absorption was improved by using synthetic paints and other non-porous materials to coat the leather. Also, a new type of valve was invented that eliminated the laced slit on soccer balls.

1950 Soccer Ball

In 1951 a white ball was first permitted to help spectators see the ball easier with the advent of floodlights. White soccer balls were un-officially used as early as 1892. The leather was simply white washed to produce the white ball. Orange balls were also first introduced in the 1950's to help see the ball in the snow.

It was not until the 1960's that the first totally synthetic ball was produced. But it was not until the late 1980's that synthetic leather totally replaced the leather ball. Up until then, it was felt that leather soccer balls provided more of a consistent flight and bounce.  Synthetics used in today's soccer balls emulate the cell structure and quality of leather with less water absorption.

The Buckminster Soccer Ball

Early footballs were sewn up with laces. These days, footballs are made from synthetic leather patches sewn together in a design based on the 'Buckminster Ball' or known as the Buckyball. The American architect Richard Buckminster Fuller came up with the design when he was trying to find a way for constructing buildings using a minimum of materials.

The shape is a series of hexagons, pentagons and triangles, which can be fitted together to make a round surface. The modern soccer ball is essentially a Buckminster Ball consisting of 20 hexagonal and 12 pentagonal surfaces. When they are sewn together and inflated they make a near perfect sphere.  The black spots on the ball helped players to perceive any swerve on the ball

The first 32-panel ball was marketed by Select in the 1950s in Denmark. The first "official" FIFA world cup soccer ball was the Adidas Telstar used in the 1970 world cup at Mexico. As shown above it was also the first official World Cup Buckminster type soccer ball.

Ball Construction

     The four main components of a soccer ball are the cover, the stitching, the lining and the bladder.  Understanding these components and their options will help you in choosing the perfect ball to meet your playing and quality needs.

  • Covers

The surface of soccer balls or coverings are made up from synthetic leather and not full grain leather (as used in the past) because leather has a tendency to absorb water causing the ball to become very heavy.

Synthetic leather is typically made from PU (polyurethane)
and PVC (poly vinyl chloride). 

There are many variations of synthetic leather used in the construction of soccer balls. Best soccer balls used in competition and by professionals are produced by using PU synthetic leather. Promotional soccer balls or practice balls are usually constructed with Polyvinyl Chloride(PVC) or rubber (molded or stitched) covers. 

Some indoor soccer ball covers are made with a felt material similar to what is used on a tennis ball.

  • Panels

The number of panels -- the different segments that make up the outside covering of the ball -- varies for each design.

A 32-panel ball is the most common and is the type used in most professional matches. The soccer ball is essentially a Buckminster Ball consisting of 20 hexagonal (six sided) and 12 pentagonal (five sided) surfaces. Also known as a truncated icosahedron except that it is more spherical, because the panels bulge due to the pressure of the air inside.

 

When they are sewn together and inflated they make a near perfect sphere. Other traditional designs are 18 and 26-panel constructions, used in various professional leagues, including Major League Soccer (until 2002), Scottish and English leagues. 

Fewer panels generally means the ball can be curved more when kicked because of less stability to the cover.

Panels can be either stitched, glued or thermally molded together:

  • Linings

Material thickness plays a vital part in the quality of hand-sewn soccer balls. Multiple layers of lining are placed between the cover and the bladder. These layers are composed of polyester and/or cotton bonded (laminated) together to give the ball strength, structure and bounce. Professional soccer balls usually have four or more layers of lining. Promotional or practice balls are often constructed with less layers of lining. The lining helps the ball retain it's shape and bounce over the life of the ball.  Many soccer balls include a foam layer for added cushioning and ball control.

  • Bladders

The bladder in a soccer ball holds the air. Bladders are usually made from latex or butyl. Compared to latex bladders, butyl bladders retain air for longer periods of time. Latex bladders tend to provide better surface tension. However; butyl bladders offer the excellent combination of contact quality and air retention. Futsal ball bladders are filled with foam to limit the bouncing capability of the ball since they are used on a hard flooring.

Most balls use butyl valves for air retention, with higher end balls using a silicone-treated valve for superior performance.  Silicone treated valves are used on some balls for smooth insertion of the inflating needle and added protection from air loss. When you first receive a ball, a good idea is to put a few drops of silicon oil in the valve.  This will provide easier needle insertion and better air retention.

Natural Latex Rubber bladders offer the softest feel and response, but do not provide the best air retention. Micro pores slowly let air escape. Balls with natural rubber bladders need to be re-inflated (at least once a week) more often than balls with butyl bladders (stay properly inflated for weeks at a time). Some balls use carbon-latex bladders in which the carbon powder helps to close many of the micro pores.     

  • Soccer balls come in the following official sizes: 

Size 5 Ages 12 and up 
Size 4 Ages 8 and 12 years 
Size 3 Under 8 years 
Size 2 and 1 Promotional soccer balls

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