The Evolution of the Soccer Ball

Happy summer everyone; I hope you’re enjoying beautiful weather and being entertained by the awesomeness that is the World Cup.  I’m pretty confident that at least 99% of us played soccer when we were kids.  I know I did and still enjoy a pick-up game now and then.  Did you ever wonder why the soccer ball has the hexagonal shapes, and why the “traditional” ball is black and white?  I didn’t (I preferred some awesome colored soccer balls, to be honest) but I decided to have a look into the evolution of a soccer ball to see if there is rhyme and/or reason behind all the details (spoiler alert: there’s a lot of reason… not sure if there will be rhyming).

Back in medieval times there would be town-wide soccer games.  What did they use, a Nike soccer ball?  Perhaps an Adidas ball?  Nope.  They used animal skulls!  Or a pig’s bladder.  Can you imagine using a skull?  I am sure they didn’t wear cleats (studs) or have shin pads so that must have been either a very painful game or slow-moving game.  A pig’s bladder sounds like it would be much better than a skull but much, much less durable.  I’m not an expert on organs, but I feel like a bladder would not be very light or have much “spring” or “bounce” to it.

Charles Goodyear –  vulcanized rubber soccer ball

Evolution of the soccer ballThe pig’s bladder just wasn’t doing the trick for people, so in 1855 Charles Goodyear made the first vulcanized rubber soccer ball— this was a huge step as it started to standardize the size and shape of a soccer ball.  Pig’s bladders came in all different shapes and sizes and they were near IMPOSSIBLE to control!  You never knew where they would end up each time you kicked it. The next version of a soccer ball came in 1862, from H. J. Lindon.  He created an inflatable rubber bladder, which was much lighter than Goodyear’s rubber ball, and would retain its shape a bit better.

A decade later, the English Football Association finally gave weight and size regulations for soccer balls to bring more consistency to the game.   They stated that the ball should be “spherical with circumference of 27 to 28 inches”, weight 13-15oz. Law of Football required it to also have an “outer casing of leather or other approved materials.”  This then lead to mass production of soccer balls—higher quality balls had leather hide from cow rump, lesser quality from had leather from the cow’s shoulder.  These were hand-stitched so there were still small variations and minor inconsistencies in the ball.  Another fun fact- the game of basketball was invented with this version of the soccer ball!

In the 1900’s soccer was becoming so popular that there was demand to make the balls stronger and more durable to withstand the toughest of play.  Until this time, soccer balls were made from leather-covered inner tubes or rubber bladders.  Now they were hand-stiching tanned leather panels and leaving a slit so that a synthetic bladder could be inserted into it.  These were considered works of art, but unfortunately still had inconsistencies and teams were lucky if a ball lasted through one game.  These balls would cause controversy as it was thought that having the skill to pick the right ball was just as important as one’s soccer playing skills.  This was the case in 1930 for the first World Cup – it is thought that the outcome of the game between Argentina and Uruguay was largely due to the quality of soccer ball each team was accustomed to.

There was another problem with these balls.  They tended to become waterlogged in rainy regions (like the UK).  In 1940 the soccer ball was given a strong layer in between the bladder and the outer covering to increase the durability of the ball, and synthetic, non-porous materials were used for the outer covering to make the ball waterproof, and a valve was added on the ball to replace the slit.

Then, in 1951 they made the soccer ball WHITE!

Once the 1960s came, soccer balls were made completely from synthetic materials.  Architect R. Buckminster Fuller created the iconic soccer ball we all know and love using 20 hexagonal and 12 pentagonal pieces stitched together to form a sphere.  This is when the black pentagons were iconically added.  The reason for the black pieces was to allow players to learn how to curve a soccer ball and track its path.  It was called the “Buckeyball”, and this is the ball that is still being manufactured today.

This year in the World Cup, there is a new feature to the soccer ball – goal-line technology.  That’s right! The referees now wear a watch-like device which speaks to a sensor in the soccer ball and will tell the referee if the ball has crossed the goal line or not.  No need for instant replay here! There are some great science resources out there about the technology and science behind the ball.  A fascinating article from Compound Chemistry looks at the chemistry of the world cup ball – dubbed the “brazuca” – which is mostly made of polymers. MIT explains in this article how the ball swerves, while NASA has been involved in testing the ball using a wind tunnel and water channel:

Just imagine all the different ways one can still improve on the soccer ball?  I bet someone can characterize all the different materials used to create the ball and determine the perfect specifications for a ball that will be more sensitive to the angle at which it is kicked to allow for more precise “curving” by players.  Maybe a soccer ball with a material that will compensate for any moisture accumulation and automatically adjust weight distribution (ok, maybe that’s a bit of a stretch).

Perhaps the game of soccer isn’t meant to be perfect in all aspects—as it was first played there were a lot of inconsistencies and it seems as though there will always be some elements present that make the game play different every time.  Maybe we should leave the soccer ball as it is and focus on something different . . . super human cleats, perhaps?

Here at Malvern we have people rooting for all different teams.  USA, Argentina, Mexico, Brazil, the Netherlands, and more!  Stay tuned for a special update from our São Paulo office from the front lines of the World Cup, and in the meantime, enjoy the games!

Sources:

http://www.sciencefriday.com/segment/06/13/2014/the-science-of-the-brazuca.html

soccer.epicsports.com/soccer-ball-history.html

http://www.soccerballworld.com/Physics.htm