November 05, 2020

Through the Decades - Footballs

A report by FIFA in 2006 suggested that there are up to 265 million people actively involved in playing football around the globe, and that count will undoubtedly have increased in the last decade and a half. Millions of footballs are made every year to meet the demand, and that number grows significantly during a World Cup tournament. Did you know that a World Cup official match ball can retail for up to $165 and that they use hundreds during the entire event?

For such a phenomenally popular sports item, do you know its history, how the football is made, or if there are particular specifications for FIFA footballs? No, then read on and broaden your football trivia knowledge!

A Potted History

We can assume that energetic people have been kicking things around since time began. We do know from ancient artefacts that people have played forms of football for many centuries and that early footballs were made from inflated animal bladders. As a matter of interest, the oldest football ever found was made in the 1540s. It was found in 1981 at Stirling Castle in Scotland and consisted of a pig's bladder covered with pieces of leather, possibly from a deer.

The football has come a long way from its humble origins. As the game of football progressed from riotous village free-for-alls and branched out from the game of rugby to become a recognised sport, it was taken more seriously. In the 19th century, clubs and associations with rules and regulations came into being.

In 1872, the English Football Association set the standard for balls used in all official games (this standard still applies today and is the basis of FIFA's requirements for official match footballs).

Thus, the design of the football improved and over the decades since it has become the ball we know today.

Image: verzellenberg/

From 1855 the inflatable bladder of the football was made from vulcanised rubber (invented by Charles Goodyear) and replaced the use of animal bladders. This change significantly improved the bounce of the ball. At that time, tanned, hand-crafted, leather panels were being used for the outer covering of the ball - this remained the case well into the 20th century. In fact, the first official FIFA World Cup match ball in 1930 was leather-panelled.

Indeed, leather footballs remained in use at the World Cup up until 1982. But during this 50 year period, there were changes. In the 1950's the laceless football with a syringe-air valve was introduced. From 1960 through the decades to the 21st century, coloured, polyurethane-coated leather and synthetic leather panels, with latex or butyl bladders were made. The first official fully synthetic football was used at the 1986 World Cup.

Image: Utd.STUDIO/

Now in the 21st century, modern footballs have fabric carcasses between the outer synthetic panels and the bladder to improve the ball's behaviour under impact. They also have textured surfaces to improve aerodynamic performance. Footballs are now made more spherical with better shape retention and more water-resistant; they perform better and are more attractive than ever before.

Image: Ververidis Vasilis/

How a Football is Made

The original leather footballs had significant drawbacks. The thickness of the leather was difficult to control, the panels were cut by hand and not consistent in shape, they were hand-stitched, and they stretched with use, so the shape of the ball was never the best. In addition, when leather gets wet, it absorbs water, so leather balls become heavy and lose form. Ask anyone who has kicked or headed a leather football – they will tell you that it can be pretty painful!

Image: fran_kie/

The first balls with polyurethane-coated leather and synthetic leather panels were made with precision die-cut hexagonal and pentagon shaped panels. The panels were hand-stitched (about 4 hours work) but used pre-punched stitch holes. This meant that when the ball was made, it had a really good shape. And, when it got wet and was used, the panels did not absorb water and did not lose their form. This meant that the balls retained their playing characteristics and kept their shape much longer than leather balls.

These days, footballs no longer have stitched panels but are thermally bonded, this dramatically reduces manufacturing time. The process also means that balls can be made with fewer panels, as few as eight. The synthetic panels are placed in a mould and heated under pressure to form the ball. This provides consistency in manufacturing with opportunities to produce fanciful and colourful designs on the outer panelling.

Image: katatonia82/

FIFA Match Footballs

FIFA's requirements for the official match football are quite simple (as stated in the Laws of the Game), it must:

  • Be spherical.
  • Be made of leather or other suitable material.
  • Have a circumference between 68 and 70 cm.
  • Weigh between 410g and 450g at the start of the match.
  • Have a pressure equal to 0.6 – 1.1 atmospheres at sea level.
  • Bear a FIFA approval mark.
  • Only have on it the competition emblem and the authorised organiser and manufacturer's marks. No form of commercial advertising is permitted.

And more recently, FIFA has recognised the benefits and potential integrated ball technology. The first example of this was the ball used in the 2018 World Cup in Russia. This ball had a microchip inside it. It didn't do an awful lot except provide manufacturer's information for each ball - that information could be monitored on a smartphone. However, this is probably just a start of things to come...onboard cameras, kick force analysis, speed measurement, trajectory analysis...such things are being tried and tested as we speak!

Image: Paparacy/

Qatar's World Cup Football

So, the humble football has evolved into a fantastic piece of sports equipment. At every World Cup, a new model is presented as the official ball – Tiento, Federale 102, Top Star, Tango and Telstar 18. It will be interesting to see how it appears at Qatar's 2022 World Cup. What will it be called, how will the tournament emblem be incorporated, what colours will it be, what will be its unique form of manufacture and will it house any technology? For now, we have to wait and see.

For more football related ‘Through The Decades’ articles, check out our Quick Reads section on the Football Buzz page:

Main Image: Evgenii Iaroshevskii/

Published: April 20, 2020
Last updated: November 05, 2020
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