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The fascinating history behind the world’s most watched ball: The Football

Team StoryWeavers|August 31, 2020|

Do you know what transformed football from just a sport into a global phenomenon? Yes, it had to do with the unbound popularity of sensational players like Ronaldo, Messi, Neymar, Rooney, and Fabregas. But there is more to the sport than the nail-biting leagues and the gripping world cups that have made it the most-watched and played sport on the planet.

What most fans don’t know is that football originated in 476 BC China and has since undergone centuries worth of evolution. So sit back as we take you from the ball’s humble beginnings to the international spotlight it finds itself in today.

Ancient civilizations

It would be safe to say that much of the football frenzy also existed among our ancient ancestors. There is enough evidence to suggest that early Chinese, Egyptian, Roman, and South American civilizations played with a spherical-shaped ball made from either cloth, animal bladder and skull, or scarily enough — human heads! In fact, the Chinese version of the game — which FIFA acknowledges as the first codified ancestor of the sport — was called Tsu Chu.

A representation of Tsu Chu being played in China (Image: Wikimedia Foundation)

1855

We can all thank Charles Goodyear (Does the name ring a bell? The world-renowned tyre and rubber company is named after him.) for sparing us the horror of playing football with animal parts! Goodyear introduced the world to the first vulcanised rubber football bladder in 1855. He also created panels similar to today’s basketball and glued them at the seams. Prior to this, cow and pig bladders covered in leather were used extensively for the sport. This did not allow the players to aim well in a certain direction and also took away the key factor of bounce from the ball.

A football made out of pig bladder (Image: Pinterest)

1872

The English Football Association (FA) standardised the official weight and size of the football in 1872. It described the ball as “spherical with a circumference of 27 to 28 inches”. Additionally, the weight was defined to be 13-15 oz and later changed to 14-16 oz in 1937. The association already required the ball to possess an “outer casing of leather or other approved materials”.

The ball used in the finals of the first-ever FIFA World Cup in 1930. (Image: Pinterest)

Early 1900s

Footballs in the early 1900s were far less tough than the ones we use today. Most balls back then would tatter and be unusable after a single match. In order to make them tougher, they were reinforced with tanned leather covers with 18 sections of six panels with three strips per panel. All this was hand-stitched together with an opening to insert the inflated bladder.

1940

In the ‘40s, the focus shifted to how well a player could control the ball. Experts added strong and stable materials between the inflated bladder and the outer shell to increase durability and control while playing. Another problem faced by players was that most footballs were not water-resistant. That’s why for the first time they began to coat footballs with synthetic and non-porous materials to prevent water absorption.

1951

Better visibility on the field was achieved with the official introduction of the white football by whitewashing leather. Interestingly there were also orange footballs for teams who played on snow.

1960

The first part-synthetic football was created in 1960. However, the first fully synthetic leather football was created only in 1980.

1970s

The next two decades saw the football evolve into a completely synthetic object.
The architect, R Buckminster Fuller created the ‘Buckyball’ — a model that has been used till date to mass-produce footballs.

Did You Know?

Richard Buckminster Fuller was an American author, systems theorist, architect, designer, inventor, and futurist. He dedicated his life to using the best of technology to revolutionize the construction and improve human housing. 

Apart from giving the world the iconic football design, he is also well known for accurately representing the Earth’s surface on a polyhedron consisting of 20 triangles of equal size and is said to have invented his own geometry. Additionally, his famous geodesic dome design has been reproduced over 300,000 times globally. In Organic Chemistry, a kind of carbon molecule known as ‘fullerenes’ is named after him due to its resemblance to his geodesic designs.

Adidas manufactured the Telstar ‘Buckyball’ with the classic 20 hexagonal and 12 pentagonal patches that are fitted and stitched together to form a sphere. It also featured the unmissable black spots designed to help players learn how to curve a football and track its swerve.

The Telstar Football aka ‘Buckyball’ with the classic 20 hexagonal and 12 pentagonal patches is the single most iconic design of the football. (Image: Pinterest)

1980s – Present

While the world of football stayed true to the ‘buckyball’ structure, changes have been made periodically to enable better performance. For instance, in 2014 Adidas introduced the most tested football ever, the Brazuca, at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

Adidas introduced the most tested football ever, the Brazuca, at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. (Image: Pinterest)

In 2018 Adidas came full circle and paid homage to the first Telstar of 1970 with the Telstar 18. Though the original Telstar had 32 panels, Telstar 18 has only six textured panels glued together unlike its stitched predecessor.

Adidas’ Telstar 18 was the official match ball for the 2018 FIFA World Cup held in England. (Image: Pinterest)

 

The evolution of footballs over the decades (source: Pinterest).

Most die-hard football fans would agree that football is more than just a sport — it is an emotion experienced by millions all over the world — well summed up by Ronaldinho when he said, “I learned all about life with a ball at my feet”. But before all the leagues, cups, and the global frenzy, there were men and women who worked hard for centuries to give our beloved players the best footballs to play with.

Did you enjoy reading this? For more slices of history, check out other interesting pieces from the Evolution of Everything series.

Tracking the evolution of technology

Driving down the history of Cars

The evolution of News

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