The soccer balls you see players using today are significantly different from when they were first created. I’ve put together this guide to show you how the soccer ball has developed throughout history and where the modern-day ball has come from.
The history of the soccer ball dates back to the mid-1800s when Charles Goodyear patented vulcanized rubber and created the first rubber soccer ball. Modern soccer balls, made from synthetic leather, PVC, or polyurethane, look and feel very different from vintage soccer balls.
In this article, I will explain the origins of the soccer ball and how the characteristics of soccer balls changed over the years. I’ll also show you how World Cup soccer balls have evolved and led the way in soccer ball development.
Read on to discover the differences between vintage leather soccer balls and the sleeker, lighter balls associated with the sport today.
For a complete history of soccer, check out my article – The History of Soccer: From Origin to Modern Day.
Early History of the Soccer Ball
Soccer is the most popular sport globally, with billions of fans tuning in to watch their favorite club and international sides throughout the year.
During those games, soccer balls zip around in the air and can be a nightmare for goalkeepers to handle. I know I’ve been fooled by the flight of a soccer ball more than once while playing in goal!
Such balls are a far cry from the inflated pig bladders wrapped in leather that ancient Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians are said to have kicked around.
People in ancient times would often play soccer with a hog’s head, skulls, or anything else they could find and kick around. The English army in those days was famous for taking the skulls of their fallen enemies to play soccer games after major battles.
First Days of Soccer Ball Production
The sport of soccer, or football as it’s known in Europe, did not become more organized until the early 19th century.
In those times, people made soccer balls with materials such as inflated pig, ox, or bullock bladders, which went inside a leather case, with boot laces used to tie everything together.
Such soccer balls were hefty and may not have lasted more than a few games.
Significant changes to soccer balls came in the mid-1800s when American chemist and engineer Charles Goodyear patented vulcanized rubber.
Goodyear spent much of his career experimenting with natural rubber and eventually found a way to ensure rubber lost its stickiness and become more durable.
Goodyear’s work eventually led to his discovery of vulcanized rubber, for which he received a patent from the United States Patent Office in 1844.
In 1855 Charles Goodyear invented the first soccer ball. He made it from rubber, and it would go on to revolutionize the world of soccer.
H.J. Lindon then took Goodyear’s invention to the next level.
By developing a rubber bladder that people could inflate, Lindon ensured soccer balls maintained their spherical shape better when kicked around during games.
Soccer Ball Standards and Specifications
The English Football Association is one of the oldest sports associations globally. You can trace soccer as an organized sport back to the formation of the FA in 1863. Nine years later, the FA set the specifications for soccer balls used in professional competitions throughout the country.
Find out more about the origins of soccer in my article – How Soccer was Invented.
Soccer ball specifications state that a soccer ball must be spherical with a circumference of 27 to 28 in (68.58 to 71.12 cm) and a weight of 13 to 15 oz (0.37 to 0.43 kg).
The FA’s rules established a worldwide standard for soccer balls, with the ball made of the rubber bladder with hand-stitched leather and laces on the outside.
A Glasgow company, Mitre and Thomlinson’s, is responsible for the inflatable soccer ball becoming even better developed. They learned that the best way to retain the shape of the ball involved improving the strength of the leather used for the outer cover.
Eventually, manufacturers made soccer ball exteriors with the cow’s rump. In contrast, they made cheaper balls with leather from the shoulder of the animal.
Not only do soccer balls have animals as part of their history, but have a look at my article – What is a “brace” in soccer? – to find out how the history of this piece of soccer terminology arose from the way people referred to animals!
Removal of the Leather Lace in the 1900s
Further developments to the soccer ball came in the mid-1900s in Argentina. Romano Polo, Antonio Tossolini, and Juan Valbonesi received a patent for developing a soccer ball without a leather lace in 1931.
Such soccer balls, called the Superball in that era, became the official ball of the Argentina Football Association in 1932 but were eventually adopted by other nations in later years.
The majority of future developments of the soccer ball would come through the newly created FIFA World Cup.
History of FIFA World Cup Balls
Some of the most significant developments in the history of the soccer ball have come about due to the importance of the FIFA World Cup.
One of the reasons I look forward to the World Cup every four years is in anticipation of the new soccer ball that will accompany the tournament.
The FIFA World Cup is the most celebrated national competition in men’s soccer. It is contested by 32 teams every four years.
These tournaments are an opportunity for ball manufacturers to bring forward a new, official World Cup ball.
The World Cup balls often showcase the latest innovations in soccer ball production while celebrating the tournament’s host nation.
Let’s take a quick look at the history of the soccer ball throughout the history of the FIFA World Cup.
Early World Cups
The first World Cup took place in Uruguay in 1930, and there was some controversy regarding the ball used for the final of the tournament.
Argentina and Uruguay contested the final, with the Uruguayans emerging victorious.
As there was no official World Cup ball for the 1930 tournament, Uruguay and Argentina hoped to use their own balls for the final. Referee Jean Langenus settled the dispute by allowing Argentina to use their ball for the first half before switching to Uruguay’s ball for the second period.
Both balls were made of leather, with laces on the outside.
- Uruguay’s ball had 11 interlocking T-shaped panels.
- The Argentine ball was smaller and lighter, made up of 12 rectangular panels.
There were very few changes to the style and quality of the soccer ball in the subsequent decades.
Global sports apparel and accessory company Adidas first began producing soccer balls in 1963. In 1970, they first made an official World Cup ball for the tournament in Mexico.
The ball was called the Telstar and included 32 black and white panels.
One reason for the black and white panel design was because the 1970 tournament was the first to be seen on TV worldwide, and at that time, most people would be watching the television broadcast of the World Cup in black and white.
Find out why this design made such an impact in my article – Why are Soccer Balls Black and White?
Teams also used the Telstar ball during the 1974 tournament in West Germany, albeit with some modifications.
Tango – 1978 and 1982
The Tango Durlast was a fascinating step in the soccer ball’s evolution.
It had a unique design that caused it to create an optical illusion, making it appear as though there were 12 identical circles on the ball’s surface. The manufacturer created this illusion by using 20 panels with interior triads and was made with genuine leather with a plastic coating to make it waterproof.
The Tango’s popularity meant the design continued for several tournaments in the future, including the 1982 World Cup in Spain.
The 1982 version, Tango Espana, had rubberized seams to improve its water resistance. Unfortunately, those seams did not hold up, and officials had to change the ball several times during the 1982 World Cup games.
Azteca, Etrusco, and Questra
Despite the Azteca ball retaining the unique design of the Tango, there was a change in the materials used to make the ball.
Adidas manufactured a ball made with synthetic materials for the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. It had a polyurethane coating and was resistant to rain and other inclement weather conditions.
The Etrusco, used for the 1990 World Cup in Italy, had a layer of black polyurethane foam inside. Such an invention made the ball slightly softer and faster when moving through the air, speeding up, passing, crossing, and shooting.
The United States hosted the FIFA World Cup in 1994, and the Questra was the official ball for that tournament.
Adidas included a layer of polystyrene foam outside the ball, which improved waterproofing and made the ball move even faster through the air and on the surface.
Tricolore, Fevernova, and Teamgeist
Traditional black and white color schemes dominated soccer balls at World Cups and other tournaments for many decades.
France broke away from the tradition with the official ball for the FIFA World Cup in 1998.
Adidas created a tri-color ball called the Tricolore, which featured France’s blue, white and red colors, which became the first World Cup ball to depart from a black and white color scheme.
Slight changes were made for the Fevernova, the 2002 FIFA World Cup official ball in Japan and South Korea.
Adidas thickened the inner layers of the ball, making it more accurate when moving through the air.
The Teamgeist, the official ball of the 2006 World Cup in Germany, was the first high-end soccer ball to feature very few seams and ridges. Adidas significantly reduced panel touch-points on their new ball, which meant the ball was more accurate and easier for the players to control.
Now, you may assume that every soccer ball produced for the World Cup was received positively by players, but that is not the case.
The Jabulani was one of the most hated soccer balls of all time, especially from the perspective of goalkeepers.
Brazilian goalkeeper Julio Cesar said around the time of the tournament:
“The ball is horrible, it is one of those you buy in the supermarket.”
Spanish shot-stopper Iker Casillas was similarly critical. He said:
“It is very sad that a competition so important as the world championship will be played with such a horrible ball.”
Adidas did not mean to create such a controversial ball.
The company intended for its new “grip and groove” technology to ensure the ball was stable in flight and easier for players to grip with their feet.
The issue with the Jabulani centered around its movement when in the air. Players soon discovered that kicking the ball straight on, with the top portion of their foot, resulted in an extreme spin and dip in the air.
A goalkeeper could be standing in the ideal position, ready to stop a shot, but the ball would dip or swerve at the last second and evade them.
Keepers were not the only ones complaining, as Brazilan forward Robinho said at the time:
“For sure the guy who designed this ball never played football.”
One player who thoroughly enjoyed the controversial Jabulani soccer ball was Diego Forlan of Uruguay. The center forward scored five goals during the 2010 tournament, with most of them coming from long range.
Research by an Aerospace Engineer
The Jabulani became such a contested topic among fans and players that an aerospace engineer from NASA, Rabi Mehta, performed analysis on the ball.
His research concluded that reducing the bonded panels on the ball to eight was the problem. Only having eight panels resulted in a ball that moved far too unpredictably at high speed within the air.
Brazuca and Telstar
Adidas redeemed itself with the ball for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, producing the Brazuca, which was the most high-tech and aerodynamic ball ever to feature at a World Cup.
The players loved this ball.
Everyone involved with the tournament commented about the ball being a lot more predictable and accurate while retaining the speed and zip of the Jabulani.
Telstar 18 took center stage in Russia for the 2018 FIFA World Cup, with the name being an homage to some of the balls used at older World Cups.
Adidas even recreated the look of older balls with a black and white pattern to make the ball easier for television audiences to view.
Rather than having 32 panels like the original Telstar, this ball had only six panels. Each panel was glued together with a 3D textured upper layer to improve the control and grip of the ball.
The 2018 version of the World Cup ball came in two versions.
Players used one ball for the group stages, and Adidas introduced the Telstar Mechta for the knockout rounds (quarter-finals, semi-finals, and final) of the tournament.
The Mechta was essentially the same construction and design but featured splashes of red in addition to the traditional black and white colors of the regular Telstar 18.
The Adidas World Cup Official Match Ball (Telstar 18) is available to purchase. It is still an excellent ball for any aspiring soccer star hoping to practice their skills.
Future World Cups
Adidas is likely hard at work on the next ball for the 2022 FIFA World Cup, set to take place in Qatar. The tournament is already somewhat controversial, as it will take place during the winter months.
World Cups traditionally occur in the summer, but the 2022 tournament will happen in the winter. The Qatar World Cup starts on November 21, 2022, and concludes on December 18, 2022.
Such a schedule makes the 2022 tournament the shortest since 1978, when only 16 teams contested the World Cup. There will be 32 teams in Qatar for the tournament, which means games will occur in quick succession.
Technology and the Future of Soccer Balls
The introduction of technology in soccer officiating has been the subject of vigorous debate for many years.
Proponents of the technology believe it leads to more accurate decisions. In contrast, opponents believe it takes away from the game’s sanctity.
There have been some controversial moments in games when referees made blatantly incorrect decisions.
Some of those decisions had lasting impacts, including when a Frank Lampard goal for England was disallowed against Germany in the 2010 FIFA World Cup, despite clearly crossing the line. England was 2-1 down in the game and could have equalized, but lost 4-1.
Such a decision is no longer possible in high-level sport, given the introduction of goal-line technology. High-tech cameras and sensors determine whether a soccer ball has crossed the goal line.
Referees then receive an immediate signal on a watch they are wearing, which indicates whether the team has scored a goal or not.
This process allows the referee to decide on the goal’s validity within seconds.
While goal-line technology does involve extensive camera systems at high-end soccer stadiums, the ball also plays a part.
Modern soccer balls include electronic sensors that react with magnetic fields underneath and around the goal, which allows computer software to calculate the exact position of the ball at any given moment.
Worldwide sports apparel and products company Nike spent eight years researching and testing its soccer ball, the Nike Flight. The ball features molded grooves, 3D-printed ink, and other tech to improve its flight through the air.
Nike hopes its new ball experiences less drag and has a more stable flight during games, regardless of the pitch or weather conditions.
The company claims its new ball has a 30% truer flight than its older ball, the Nike Merlin. The Nike Flight is made with a combination of synthetic leather, rubber, polyester, and cotton.
Anyone interested in experiencing the Nike Flight during a kickabout or a game with friends will be happy to know it is available to purchase at Amazon.com.
Depending on where you live, you see people using just about anything to play soccer. As long as kids have something shaped like a ball they can kick around, they are content.
The modern-day soccer ball has come a long way since the days of people kicking skulls or pig’s bladders. They are made from state-of-the-art materials that include technology to allow better tracking and analytics.
Every World Cup has brought new innovations to the soccer ball, and fans like you and I eagerly anticipate the revealing of the official ball of the upcoming FIFA World Cup.
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