Soccer Ball History

Imagine kicking a skull or pig's bladder around an open field to pass the time. If you lived in medieval days or even prior to the twentieth century, that's what you may have been doing.

The history of the soccer ball dates back to ancient times. From a couple centuries BC to about 200 AD, the Chinese used balls made from animal skins in a game called 'tsu chu', in which players had to pass them through a net stretched between two poles. The ancient Greeks, Romans, and even the Egyptians are recorded to have enjoyed a similar game that involved kicking a makeshift ball.

Legend has it, entire villages got involved in a violent game of skull-kicking. And it was customary to play a game much like hackysack. But instead of using the feet to keep a bean bag aloft, the object was to keep a pig bladder in the air.

Thankfully the soccer ball has evolved.

It wasn't until the twentieth century that most soccer balls were made out of rubber. Charles Goodyear in 1855 created the first vulcanized rubber soccer ball. Panels similar to that of today's basketball were glued together at the seams. Before that, the soccer ball game was at the mercy of the size and shape of the pig's bladder. That presented problems. The ball rarely went where players intended for it to.

So in 1862 a fellow by the name of H. J. Lindon developed an inflatable rubber bladder. Now the soccer ball would be easier to kick. And it could endure the regiments of the game without losing its shape.

Eventually the soccer ball needed an official size and weight. That would be the job of the English Football Association. In 1872 it described the ball as "spherical with a circumfrence of 27 to 28 inches" (68.6 cm to 71.1 cm). The weight would be 13-15 oz. Little change was made until 1937, when its weight increased to 14-16 oz. According to the Law of Football, the ball must also possess an "outer casing of leather or other approved materials". The only other thing that's changed to this day are the materials that comprise the soccer ball, and the size and shape of its panels.

Despite its still rather rustic place in the evolution of soccer history, it served the first game on Nov. 7, 1863, between the Oneida Football Club (the first organized US team) and a team from the Boston Latin and English Schools. A monument to commemorate the game stands today on Boston Common where the game was played.

With a few weeks, the soccer ball was ready to be mass produced. That would be the job of two companies, Mitre and Thomlinson's of Glasgow, which were the first to do this. But standards had to be upheld. High quality materials and stitching were required to retain the soccer ball's shape and strength, which cutters and stitchers were able to do. Good covers were made from the hide of cow rump, lesser quality covers would come from the shoulder. Interlocking panels replaced leather sections joined at the ends of the soccer ball. FIFA standards for a spherical design had to be met, and were.

Modern soccer balls were versatile. In fact James Naismith, inventor of another popular ball sport, dunked them into peach baskets and called it "basketball".

By the 1900's, soccer's growning popularity demanded that balls be strong enough to withstand the roughest play. Up until now most soccer balls were made from rubber bladders, and from leather-covered inner tubes. Covers were constructed of tanned leather carefully hand-stitched together in 18 sections of six panels, with three strips per panel, and with a small slit on one side allowing for an inflated bladder to be inserted into it.

Hand-crafted soccer balls were a work of art. Problem was, they were neither safe nor reliable. A team was lucky if a soccer ball made it through a game. And varying grades of leather made choosing the right ball a strategy unto itself. In fact, it's thought that the outccome of the first World Cup played in 1930 between Argentina and Uruguay had a lot to do with the quality of the soccer ball used by each team.

The early 1940s was a time of further change in the history of soccer ball. Improvements were made to strengthen and enhance control of the ball by adding a carcass made from strong materials inserted between the bladder and the outer casing. Older balls also had a problem with water absorption. So by coating the soccer ball with synthetic and non-porous materials, balls absorbed less water. And a new valve replaced the laced slit on the sides of the soccer ball.

In 1951 soccer enjoyed better visibility with the official introduction of the white soccer ball, although they had already been in use since 1892. The soccer ball was made white simply by whitewashing the leather. And if a team had a certain propensity for playing soccer in the snow, well there was even a ball for that. It was orange, rather than white.

And it's on to the synthetic soccer ball made in the 1960s. But it would be 20 more years before the first soccer ball made entirely out of synthetic materials was manufactured. Such a ball was able to similate the quality and feel of leather, but offered a more reliable performance and less water absorption.

The "Buckeyball", designed by archicect R. Buckminster Fuller, lends its name to the evolution of the synthetic soccer ball. In fact it became the model from which the modern soccer ball is mass-produced to this day. Twenty hexagonal, and 12 pentagonal pieces were fitted and stitched together to form a sphere. The black spots designed into it helped players learn how to curve a soccer ball and track its swerve. FIFA's first World Cup soccer ball, the Adidas Telstar, and the first World Cup Buckminster model soccer ball were used in Mexico's 1970 World Cup competition.

Developments to the soccer ball's intricate design didn't stop there. Enhancements have continued into the twenty-first century, and today companies are still researching better designs for optimal performance while meeting FIFA standards.

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