According to a survey undertaken by FIFA in 2007, approximately 265 million people play soccer in a regular organized form. That’s about 4% of the world’s population which inarguably places soccer at being the most popular sport on earth.
That’s quite impressive, don’t you think? In case you aren’t entirely convinced just yet, did you know that the FIFA World Cup stands at being the most watched sporting event in the world?
Despite all the popularity and glamour that this sport is currently associated with, it has very humble beginnings. Throughout history, soccer has been played in various forms.
There is a long record showing that humans have always enjoyed kicking around a ball-like contraption but the soccer ball as we know it today, didn’t come to be till around the 1960s.
History of How Soccer Balls Are Made
Before we had the modern soccer ball we have all come to know and identify with, earlier civilizations used different ball-like objects. The Chinese Han and Ts’in Dynasties used balls made out of animal skin and filled with animal hair or corks.
During the pre-medieval times, you’d find kids kicking a human or animal skull around at the village square and during medieval times, the skull was replaced with an inflated pig bladder.
The inflated pig bladder stuck around for a considerably long while and it was even later on covered with leather to give the ball better shape retention. It did have its fair share of problems though. Inflating pig bladders was quite tasking, and the shape and size of the ball would depend on the particular pig the bladder came from.
As a result, the balls weren’t uniform, and when kicked, they would have unpredictable behavior, which defeats the whole purpose of soccer.
A significant milestone was reached in 1855 when Charles Goodyear created the first vulcanized rubber soccer ball. This was a huge improvement from inflated pig bladder, but it still wasn’t a perfect solution.
A near-perfect solution came in 1862 when Lindon created the inflated rubber bladder. This had the upper hand over the vulcanized rubber ball because it was lighter in weight and had better shape retention.
In 1872, the English Football Association formed a rule that a soccer ball must be spherical and it should also have a circumference no less than 27” and no more than 28”.
To date, this remains the official size of a soccer ball, listed among the FIFA Laws. What has changed is the official weight of a soccer ball which was initially set as 13-15 oz., but later revised in 1937 when it got increased to 14-16 oz.
The inflatable rubber bladder underwent improvements with time, and by the 1900s, the rubber used was stronger such that it could withstand heavier pressure. The bladder would then be covered with heavy leather hand stitched using five-ply hemp, and a small 15cm lace-up slit was left on one side of the ball.
This slit was left open so that a deflated bladder could be inserted into the ball cover and then inflated through a long stem neck. Once the bladder is inflated, the slit was laced up and shut tight.
The problem comes in whereby the balls hardly made it through a game because they would need to be re-inflated quite frequently and the leather would degrade during a match. Additionally, the heavy stitching made these balls very painful for heading, and the leather would absorb a lot of water when playing in rainy weather which caused the ball to be too heavy to play with. There was no standard cowhide used for these old balls, so they all had different thicknesses and qualities which made it hard for teams to agree upon which ball to use during a game. Remember the 1930 World Cup final between Uruguay and Argentina?
In the early 1940s, the soccer ball underwent improvements to allow for enhanced ball control. This was achieved by adding a carcass inserted between the outer casing and the bladder. The carcass was made from durable materials, so this subsequently strengthened the ball.
Besides including the carcass, the ball was also coated with synthetic paints and non-porous materials to reduce its water absorption. Also, the laced slit on the side of the ball was replaced with a special kind of valve.
1951 saw the official introduction of white soccer balls which was achieved by whitewashing the leather. This allowed spectators to enjoy better visibility of the ball and when playing in the snow, an orange ball was used instead.
The first completely synthetic soccer ball as we know it today was produced in the 1960s, but it would be more than 20 years before the full grain leather ball got replaced entirely by synthetic leather. This is because the general feeling was that leather balls gave a more consistent flight and bounce compared to their synthetic counterparts.
However further advancements in research and technology made it possible for synthetics to mimic the cell structure and overall quality of leather. Better yet, synthetic soccer balls absorb less water.
Presently, soccer balls are made out of synthetic leather, and this is often polyurethane (PU) or polyvinyl chloride (PVC), whereas the inner bladder can be made from natural or synthetic rubber. The synthetic leather panels are stitched together and backed with a polyester or poly-cotton blend cloth. The backing is then held onto the panels using latex adhesive.
Construction of a Soccer Ball: All Parts
- Outer Cover of Soccer Balls
Soccer ball casings are made from a range of PU materials such as Microfiber, English Porvair, AI-2OOO, Korean Ducksung, Japanese Teijin Cordley and Leather Art Pakistan synthetic leather. Promotional or practice soccer balls, on the other hand, are often made from PVC and rubber while soccer balls intended for indoor use usually come covered with a felt material similar to that used on tennis balls.
The casing consists of panels and the number of panels on the ball depends on the design of the ball as well as its intended use. Professionally, 32-panel black and white balls are used, which comprise 20 hexagonal and 12 pentagonal panels. For non-professional matches such as league soccer, 18-26 panel balls are used instead. The advantage here is that when there are fewer panels, the ball gets a more rounded shape and so it can curve better.
- Soccer Ball Stitching
A soccer ball consists of panels that have been held together using various means of joinery such as stitching, gluing or thermal molding. The best soccer balls have stitched panels using a 5-ply twisted polyester thread of a specific thickness and quality. For reinforcement, Kevlar® stitching may be added besides the polyester stitching, and this also enhances the endurance of the ball.
Hand stitching or machine stitching can be used, but the former is famed for having seams that are stronger, tighter and more durable. As a result, though, hand-stitched soccer balls cost much more than machine stitched balls, and so this is often used for high-end balls.
Balls with glued panels are even cheaper than machine stitched balls, and this technique is mostly used for practice balls that have rubber casings. The surface of the glued balls also feels harder than that of stitched balls. Thermal molding is a superior joinery technique, and it is used for the soccer balls used in the World Cup.
On the underside of the soccer ball casing, between the cover and the bladder, there is a lining, and the purpose of this is to strengthen the casing as well as enhance the ball’s shape retention while helping it maintain its bounce over time.
The most popularly used lining cloths are cotton and/or polyester laminated together. The number of layers of lining used influences the quality of the ball whereby a professional soccer ball will have at least four layers while practice balls will have two layers. Besides the cloth lining, some soccer balls also have a foam layer which gives better ball control and a cushioning effect as well.
- Soccer Ball Bladder
This is the part of a soccer ball that holds air. The bladder of modern soccer balls is made from rubber (both natural and synthetic), butyl, carbon-latex or PU. Latex bladders have a very soft feel, good response and great surface tension but latex is not very efficient when it comes to air retention.
Butyl, on the other hand, has better air retention while also having good contact and this is why they are popularly used for middle-upper priced soccer balls. Carbon-latex bladders also offer better air retention compared to natural rubber bladders, and this is because the carbon powder helps close up many of the micro pores which cause air leakage.
Air is pumped into the bladder through a valve, and butyl valves are the most common ones for mid-priced balls while silicone-treated valves are used for the high-end balls. Silicone-treated valves give better performance by minimizing air loss, and they also allow for a smooth needle insertion hence making it easier to inflate the ball.
Conclusion: That’s everything about how a soccer ball is made
The soccer ball has come a long way while undergoing a lot of evolution to become what we know it as today. However, this isn’t the end of the road just yet. Sporting companies and conglomerates are constantly undertaking research aimed at developing the soccer ball’s intricate design.
While the size, shape and weight of the ball have to remain within FIFA’s set standards, innovation can still be put in towards coming up with a softer covering that’s more pliable and more efficient bladder materials such as butyl.
All this is so that the soccer ball may have a better design that allows for optimal performance while still keeping within the constraints of FIFA’s standards.