Dr. Subhashis Biswas
So we love the game. We love artistry, we love passion, we love fighting spirit, we love the colors, we love the stadiums, we love the players, we love all the things associated with the game. As Bill Shankly quoted, the game we love is much more than mundane matters like life and death. We analyze the every move on the field, we criticise the tactics, and we hail the evolution of new formations.
Everything about the game gets our attention. Now how about the only thing that actually matters in this game? How about the round object which is actually the centre of action and attraction? How about the “football” itself? How much attention and analysis does the round object gets? This article will look into a few details about the ball, some histories, some interesting incidents, some evolutionary aspects, some science and of course some impact on the game as a whole. It is about the “Football”.
When we think of the magnitude of this game today, we wonder how it has all started. Or in other words, how football was invented. The game looks pretty simple on its face value. A sense of teamwork and achieving your goal. Any corporate house follows the same principle. Human civilization followed this principle. Our civilization, society progressed by achieving goal, setting targets, working together, standing for each other. Whatever I have described in last few lines can easily be applied in football field. All these characteristics are needed in a good football team. So we wonder, who first thought that these important characteristics can be formulated in the form of game. Who thought about the fact that the ball should be round, not square, not trapezium, not any other geometric shape.
Of course as true for any inventions, there are conflicts regarding its origin. Ancient Greeks, Egyptians and Chinese people involved in some sort of game with round object kicked by feet, though the technicalities are very different from modern day football. These dates are believed to be as far as 2500 B.C.
Most of these games included the use of hands, feet and even sticks to control a ball. We can see resemblances in Australian Rules football and rugby, where ball is kicked sometimes along with hold and run. The Roman game of ‘Harpastum’ resembles more like modern day rugby and needed lot of hostility keeping tradition with violent nature of sports and culture of life in ancient Rome.
Ancient Chinese game “Tsu-Chu” or “kick ball” is the most accurate ancestor of football. This game was played during Tsin dynasty (255-206BC). The soldiers, after a hard day of work, found it relaxing in a game which required kicking the ball, and scoring “goals”. The difference of this goal with modern day goal is that the “goal-post” hung about 30 feet above the ground. From the introduction of Tsu-Chu onwards, football-like games spread throughout the world, with many cultures having activities that centred on the use of their feet. The Native Americans had ‘Pahsaherman’, the Indigenous Australians ‘Marn Grook’ and the Moari’s ‘Ki-o-rahi’ to name a few.
Invention of modern day football
This idea of kicking a round object travelled through an evolutionary path over the years. When the journey reached early medieval ages, it took a form of kicking a pig’s bladder or skull from one town to another in England. The pig’s bladder needed to be kept in the air, and sometimes this got really violent. Unlimited number of peoples got involved in the game who tried to kick the pig’s bladder in opponent team’s church or house. Shrovetide football, as it is known, is still surviving many villages in England. Obviously these types of inhuman and cruel activities had drawn a lot of flak from various corners of society, and faded away from the society.
In 12th and 13th century, football was mentioned in various forms in English literature. The first literary reference of football in literature is given by William FitzStephen (around 1180) in Descriptio Nobilissimae Ciuitatis Londinae.
He described about the sports and passtime of people around that time. He mentioned about each kid from school coming with a ball of their own after lunch. Older people will come in horse-backs to watch the youths play and revive their own youth. Layamon, a notable English poet of 13th century, described ball playing as “driving balls over the field” by knights of King Arthur in “Brut”.
It is believed that the game of football is actually brought in England and then mainland Europe by Arabs. There is some confusion regarding this statement, as according to some beliefs, the game of football was already present in Europe. But what the Arab did was made the game popular and a permanent event in sports and pastime of Europeans.
The journey of football to modern day popularity had many obstacles. Edward II thought playing football will bar the youths from participating in archery. So he banned the game of “ball”. Edward III, Edward IV, Henry IV, Henry V all followed suite and banned football in their regime and forced people to practice archery. Oliver Cromwell, ruler in Britain after Charles I was the last person to have opposed football. After his death in 1660, football gradually re-emerged in Britain and spread its wings in mainland Europe.
The number of players involved in early days of football ranged from thousands to fifteen hundreds, and the distance between two goalposts could have been as wide as 3 miles. All the youth peoples living in one town were engaged in the game, chasing balls which sometimes kicked and thrown high in the air. The shape of the ball was made round so that it can be held comfortably in hand.
Football in early days knew no bounds. It was madness sometimes, destructive sometimes, inflicting many damages in various parts of the society. Ball sometimes drowned in ponds, destroyed properties and sometimes even took lives. Yet people gave into the madness all the times, talking and joking about the events relating the game.
Public schools in Britain observed football in their school premises from as early as 1747. Elton, Westminister, Harrow, Shrewsbury all these schools took up football by 1750s. Football gradually was shaping and moving towards its modern form by 1800s.
An excerpt from a famous book entitled The Sports and Pastimes of the People of England written by Joseph Strutt and William Hone are as follows:
"When a match at football is made, two parties, each containing an equal number of competitors, take the field, and stand between two goals, placed at the distance of eighty or an hundred yards the one from the other. The goal is usually made with two sticks driven into the ground, about two or three feet apart. The ball, which is commonly made of a blown bladder, and cased with leather, is delivered in the midst of the ground, and the object of each party is to drive it through the goal of their antagonists, which being achieved the game is won. The abilities of the performers are best displayed in attacking and defending the goals; and hence the pastime was more frequently called a goal at football than a game at football. When the exercise becomes exceeding violent, the players kick each other's shins without the least ceremony, and some of them are overthrown at the hazard of their limbs."
As the time progressed, slowly calm prevailed over madness, and the game became popular in England, and started to spread across the mainland Europe. People across Britain felt the need to take the game more seriously and formulate some rules which can be applied at the playing field. Certainly they thought thousand men running around wildly over 3 miles is not the right idea. The material of the ball was primary concern. Animal bladder or thereabouts cannot serve as the official ball. Forget about morality, it will not last the length of the game. Rubber was the material that came to mind which provided the best alternative of animal bladder. Something that can bounce. Something that has good elastic properties. Something that can wither different weather conditions.
Charles Goodyear, a well known name in the field of Rubber Technology. He designed the first non-pig bladed ball made of rubber. He patented vulcanized rubber in 1836 and 19 years later he made first rubber bladder ball used in the football field. If you are wandering what vulcanized rubber is, have a look at this picture:
There are linkages between the carbon chains. These are sulphur linkages which make the rubber more flexible. This makes the rubber take various shapes, and makes it less rigid. A good material to prepare something which will be subject to vigorous kicking and thumping. A wise choice by Goodyear to use vulcanized rubber as the principal material of football.
The ball prepared by Goodyear looked more like modern day basketball though. It was prepared with vulcanized rubber panels stitched across the seam. The vulcanized rubber definitely allowed the ball to bounce more, and it was easier to kick. The ball was used to play a football match between Oneida Football club and pupil from Boston Latin and English schools.
Initially there was not much specification about the actual football was mentioned in the rulebook. But in 1872 Football Association specified that the football should be a spherical object with circumference between 68.6 to 71.1 centimetres. The weight of the football should not cross 16 Oz. The size and weight almost remained same over the years. The material in the outer surface of the football has severely changed.
Football was spreading fast across the globe. The British rulers were pretty much all over the world by that time, and people of British origin introduced and played the game in various parts of the world. Switzerland and Denmark saw football associations formed as first associations in mainland Europe. Buenos Aires cricket club was formed by British railway workers and played the first association football match down in South America. The game was spreading fast. So need of footballs more in numbers were increasing. Demand has increased, so mass level production of football was needed. The game is no longer limited to the territories of United Kingdom.
The football league in England, the first version of today’s hugely popular Barclays Premiere league, started in England at 1888. Mass production of football also started in Britain around that time. Tomnilson’s and Mitre’s were the first two companies who jumped into the commercial side of the picture and manufactured football in large numbers. Times were difficult back then. Commercialising something in large scale was not easy. Quality and quantity had to be balanced. Those companies prepared two different kinds of footballs according to the market need. One superior quality made with leather from the rump of a cow while lower quality balls were made from the shoulder. They have changed the north-south stitch in the ball with interlocking panels on the surface of the ball. This made the ball more stable against puncture. At this point, football has come a long way from the animal bladders.
The rubbers if strewn across tightly on the surface of the ball, can become very strong and withstand heavier pressure. But if the tensile strength of something is high, rather if you stitch something with high tension, it is likely that surface going to rupture after colliding with hard surface. That’s what happened with the footballs prepared in early 1900s as the ball prepared with stronger rubbers often got ruptured due to hardness and roughness of the football field. Remember, those were the days before lawn-mowers, ground keepings and smoothness of the surface in a football field. These balls were good for kicking but were painful when heading due to the heavy stitching and the water absorption characteristics of the leather. Water absorption of the leather during rain made the ball very heavy and caused many head injuries.
The first world cup, official global tournament hosted by FIFA took place in Uruguay in 1930.
At this stage, the major problem with the footballs was water adsorption. Huge amount of water used to seep inside the ball, making it heavier and almost difficult to kick and head. 1934 and 1938 world cups saw the use of these “heavy” balls. The pattern of play saw that ball is more kept on the ground, which in turn made it heavy. The modern day wing play was not so evident at that time. Wing back concept was not very popular, though they hardly used to overlap and send a floating cross across the goal for the centre forward to head in the ball.
So, the manufacturers had to do something about it. During World War II some technologies evolved regarding the quality of the rubber and leather materials. War-related materials were innovated keeping in mind of its longevity. Porosity of the rubber is reduced by using synthetic paints and non-porous materials to cover the leather. Some examples of common non-porous materials are glass, ceramics etc. Applying paints was not very wise idea, as the quality of leather was not very high after World War II to start with. So the quality of the ball did not improve massively, though the water-resistant property was improved by some extent. The colour of the ball remained brownish so far, mainly resembling colour of the raw leather. In 1951, floodlight was introduced and white footballs are made for viewers to see it properly, as dark balls cannot be seen properly under floodlight. Later orange balls were also introduced for grounds covered in snow.
Synthetic Soccer Balls
Slowly the need of a soccer ball which will be “comfortable” for players, increased. The progress of the game should not be suffered due to lack of innovation. The idea of synthetic soccer balls emerged slowly. Manufacturers were thinking in the terms of improving the water resisting property of the leather. To do so, the first thought that came to manufacturer’s mind was to prepare hybrid leathers, i.e. mix “some” materials with the original leather. Leather production has three stages: preparatory stages, tanning, and crusting. It is during the tanning process various chemicals are mixed with the leather to make leathers of variable properties. Some of the well known chemicals that are used in tanning process are “Tannin”. Cr2(SO4)3, HCOOH, Hg, and various solvents. So, if the property of the leather has to be changed, it is at this stage, i.e., during tanning, some other materials are needed to be introduced.
Polyurethane is a material, with a carbamate (-CO-NH-) linkage that was considered to be the principle hybrid materials in leather balls. Polyurethane is thermosetting polymer, i.e., it does not melt even when heated. This property gives added stability to the leather with which polyurethane was to be mixed. During the tanning process of the leather, polyurethane is mixed and the hybrid leather ball with synthetic material was first used in Euro 1968, hosted in the then Czechoslovakia. Telstar Elast was the name given to the ball prepared by ADIDAS.
Later on, white black panel Telstar balls were introduced in the world cup for the first time in 1970. Immediate improvement was noticed in the swerve of the ball. An example is this free kick by Rivelino. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zuir7PwfovM
The flight of the ball changed in the air due to addition of synthetic materials. More and more goals are scored from freekicks. Goalkeeper’s job got difficult because it became difficult to judge the flight of the ball in the air.
Then came Johan Cruyff, and came the “Total Football” along with him. The kick and run game that the British invented and lot more countries followed were slowly began to fade away. Brazil did already show the glimpses of artistry in 1962 and 1970. Now Johan Cruyff’s Holland showed a complete different way to play football than the British. Passing the ball along the ground and changing frequent positions. Movement of players along with the ball. This way ball will be kept on the ground most of the times and encounter more friction with the playing surface. This type of football was not possible with old leather balls. But as the balls became lighter and with more water-resisting synthetic material on the surface, it is more water resistant and can withstand frictional damage caused by the playing surface. The football material had evolved, the style of the game also had evolved along with it.
Now there is a story behind this structure and shape of white black panel balls. Richard Buckminister Fuller was an American architect, and he was thinking of finding ways to construct buildings using minimum amount of materials. This type of pattern of pentagons connected across a flat surface gave the idea of having maximum surface area with minimum inputs. To be exact, these types of structures contain exactly 20 hexagons and twelve pentagons , giving it a cage like fused ring structure of truncated icosahedrons. Later scientists discovered a structure like this made up completely of carbons, with carbon atom at the corner of each polygon and each polygon is joined to other polygon at all the vertex points by a bond. It was given a name “buckminsterfullerene” with formula C60 and was awarded Nobel Prize in 1985. Due to its resemblance with the soccer ball, this is often called Buckyball fullerene.
The Tango ball from Adidas first surfaced in 1978 world cup and sustained till 2000, with small changes in the outside design pattern. The initial Tango ball looked like the one below:
In 1982, Adidas introduced a thin rubber layer just inside the stitching panels of the ball to make it even more water resistant. Also , 1982 saw the last hybrid leather ball used in world cups. Due to varying conditions of the field, and of course due to high standards of the game, the manufacturers needed to completely erase leather from the equation. If one looks into the player list of the era in early 1980s, Maradonas and Platinis and Rumeniges already entered the scenario. Football has almost evolved in such a fashion that some players , termed as ball players, need to hold the ball in their feet for longer period of time. So the players needed balls that are softer, lighter and easier to control. 1986 world cup saw a complete revolution as for the first time in a FIFA event, balls made up of 100% synthetic materials like polyurethane has been used. We all know what happened in 1986 at Mexico. It was termed as Maradona’s world cup. The ball was like a personal possession to him in that world cup, refusing to be detached from his boot. The tournament saw some great matches, great footballers, and the evolution of the football definitively brought revolution in the game.
Polyurethane made sure water will not get into the ball. But it is difficult to make a ball 100% water resistant. So now the invention was needed to drive any water if it gets inside the ball. Later stages of 1980s saw a thin polyurethane layer inside the outer polyurethane layer of a football. This double layer of polyurethane almost made any water intrusion impossible inside the ball.
As time passed by, manufacturers thought of making the ball lighter. The football turfs had undergone evolution as well over the times. Polystyrene is a synthetic aromatic polymer, which is thermoplastic in nature with low-melting point. It is inexpensive, and widely used as plastic. The unique property of polystyrene is it can be used as foam also. In the early stages of 1990s, polystyrene foam was used in football along with polyurethane. This gave the ball a feather weight like property, and the acceleration of the ball increased many-fold when kicked. The flight of the ball in the air was more difficult to judge. The swerve and curve imparted in the ball was also much more compared to earlier condition. George Hagi’s freekick against Germany in 1994 Quarter-final was an example of a perfect parabola trajectory, something unimaginable in the 60s and 70s.
Next major evolution as far texture of the ball is concerned came in early 200s, when Adidas introduced a thick inner layer inside the top surface of the ball, to make the flight of the ball more accurate and predictable. This helped the goalkeepers no doubt, but produced fewer amounts of goals. 2002 World cup was an example with 35 of 64 games saw 2 or less goals scored in a match, with goals/game 2.52 in whole tournament. This trend continued in the subsequent world cups as well, with 2006 the number reducing to 2.29 goals/game and 2010 the number reducing to 2.20 goals/game, recording the all time low beating 1990 world cups 2.21 goals/game.
The evolution of the ball has to do with these reducing numbers as well. As the decade progressed, the corner-shapes are minimized and energy distributions are harmonized in the soccer ball, slowly approaching towards a perfect round object. When it approached 2010, the Jabulani ball was made up of only 8, thermally bonded 3D panels. This made the ball perfectly round, and extremely stable in flight. This made the ball very stable in flight. Goalkeepers had it much more easily to judge the flight of the ball when in air, thus making it difficult for players to score from long range. Not a lot of goals were being scored from freekick either. Some polyester and cotton carcass was used in the inner layer of the Jabulani ball.
In last few years, the visual effect of the ball has been looked upon. Nike Maxim Hi-Vis ball, introduced across various domestic leagues in Europe, saw the visibility of the ball improved under floodlights, with an added flicker effect. This ball was softer due to cross-linked nitrogen expanded foams. The outer surface of this ball almost replaced the old polyurethane structure and had polyester coatings.
The evolution continues. Big name companies are in the fray. Now-a-days best soccer balls used in various competitions and by professionals are produced by using companies likeAI-2000, Cordley, Ducksung, Mircofiber or other types of Polyurethane synthetic leather. Soccer balls that are used for practice and promotional purposes are generally constructed with Polyvinyl Chloride(PVC) or rubber (moulded or stitched) covers.
World cup balls since 1970:
- First official FIFA World Cup ball in Mexico 1970.
- Telstar Durlast R: West Germany, 1974.
- Tango Durlast: Argentina, 1978
- Tango Espana: Spain, 1982
- Azteca : México, 1986
- Etrvsco: Italy, 1990
- Questra: USA, 1994
- Tricolore: France, 1998
- Fevernova : Korea Japan, 2002
- Teamgeist Germany, Berlin and Final Balls 2006
- JABULANI”, the Official Match Ball for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa
Innovation will continue..
World cup ball for 2014 World Cup is named as Brazuca. It means mirroring the way of Brazilian’s approach towards football with passion and pride, with goodwill. Let us bring passion to the game. Let us spare some innovation for future. Let us keep in mind that, innovations can only be terminated when the thinking human brain will stop to think. So the evolution of football will continue. The evolution of human race will continue. The evolution of the beautiful game will continue. In world cup 2042, may be in New Caledonia, where enormous breeze from the ocean comes through, we will need to invent technologies and materials which will counter that wind in high velocity. Tougher conditions may play host to this global celebration event in future and we have to evolve. So our inquisitive mind will continue to wander around to find the next innovation. Let the evolution continue, let the science continue its journey hand in hand with the “beautiful game”. Our enjoyment will be enhanced…