Some variation of soccer has been played throughout much of human history. In the early days of foot-based ball games, however, it wasn’t rubberized ball with a bladder that was used. If you were lucky, you might get to kick around an animal skull for a while.
If you were unlucky, then you might find yourself kicking around a human skull.
Thankfully, Charles Goodyear developed vulcanized rubber in 1836. This stopped the use of a pig’s bladder for a soccer ball, allowing for a more consistent product to be developed. After all, if you had a tiny pig, you’d have a tiny bladder for a soccer ball. By 1855, Goodyear had created soccer balls that had been made from his invention.
Soccer balls would begin developing more consistency from there. Inflatable rubber bladders for balls were developed in 1862, giving each ball a more consistently oval shape that remained hard throughout a match.
Oval vs Round Soccer Ball: A 19th Century Problem
In the early days of soccer, the shape of the ball was dependent on the quality of the bladder being used. That meant you could find all sorts of different shapes with a soccer ball. In general terms, you could find two shapes available: round or oval.
Round balls were preferred by those who wanted more accuracy with their passing or kicking. Oval balls were preferred by those who wanted to work on their handling skills. As time passed, the round balls won out for soccer and the oval balls won out for the sport of rugby.
Because of the new bladder inventions and the increasing popularity of the sport, the English Football Association met in 1863 so that the laws of the game could be finalized. Interestingly enough, no one could agree on what the actual rule for a soccer ball should be in terms of size and composition. It wouldn’t be until 1872 when the laws would be set.
According to the law passed: “A soccer ball must be spherical with a circumference of 27-28 inches.” This is the rule that continues under current FIFA laws for the game.
In fact, the only composition laws regarding soccer balls that have changed are regarding the weight of the ball. In 1937, an extra ounce of weight was added, allowing for game balls to weigh up to 16 ounces.
Mass production of professional quality soccer balls began in earnest in 1888. Since then the days of the early bladder, not much has changed. The composition of the ball, however, has been a big sticking point throughout the history of soccer, from the pig bladder days to the days when Sepp Blatter was President of FIFA.
How Soccer Balls Have Changed Over the Years
The early mass produced soccer balls look a lot like what would happen if a basketball and an American NFL football got together to create offspring. The soccer balls of the late 1800s and early 1900s were generally 8-panel tanned leather creations. There would be stitching at the top of the ball that is similar to an NFL football’s stitching.
Needless to say, those balls were pretty heavy on the foot. They were even heavier on the head. Add in the stitching that was on those early soccer balls and it wasn’t uncommon to have a bleeding gash form on your forehead if you tried a good header. Tanned leather also tends to absorb water, so in wet weather, the soccer balls would get even heavier and this would further increase the chances of an injury happening.
After World War II, the modern soccer ball began to be developed. Valves were invented so that laced slits could be eliminated from the ball. Textiles and non-porous materials were added to the leather, along with synthetic coatings, to improve the water-resistance of the ball. This led to extra panels being included on the ball as well, with an 18-panel ball becoming the norm by the 1950s.
Yet each national soccer association still had their own favorite type of soccer ball since they were so many different combinations that were available. This led FIFA to eventually standardize the weight, type, and size of the ball to be used. By 1970, this included using 32-panel balls in competitive play.
The Modern Soccer Ball and How It Has Changed the Game
As synthetic materials have grown stronger and manufacturing processes have become consistently better, the quality of the modern soccer ball is impressive. The modern soccer ball is light to the foot, gives you control over the spin and movement it has while in the air, and keeps any stitching minimal so it does not impact the player.
Ball manufacturers have started shifting away from the 32-panel design for the modern game as well, returning to the historical 8-panel design instead. The only difference is that each panel for a modern soccer ball is a moulded panel that often has a textured surface to it. This creates even more bend and movement to the ball after it has been struck.
One of the worst examples of extraordinary movement from a soccer ball came in the 2010 World Cup. The Adidas Jabulani soccer ball was invented to improve the aerodynamics of the ball while in play, but its design and lightweight nature made the ball knuckle, rise, and dip with unnatural movements. You could even strike the Jabulani in specific places in order to increase the knuckling effect.
If you asked the average striker or midfielder what they thought of the Jabulani, it would receive high praise. Players like Frank Lampard, Kaka, and Clint Dempsey all saw the ball fairly favorably. If you asked the average goalkeeper, however, the ball received great criticism.
Modern technologies continue to improve how the soccer ball performs in all field conditions and altitudes. Each soccer ball model performs a little differently, but will allow you to work on your game, no matter what your position may be.
The best soccer balls today may not be made from heavy tanned leather, but they can still be heavy to the head if you don’t use proper techniques. That’s why it is so important to implement proper soccer drills for heading so that injury risks can be reduced.
From bladder to Blatter, soccer proves one thing: the more things change, the more they stay the same.