The Football: From Pig Bladders to Vulcanized Rubber

The Football: From Pig Bladders to Vulcanized Rubber

Telstar 18, Brazuca and Jabulani. These were the catchy names of the official match balls for the past three editions of the FIFA World Cup. We are now so accustomed to the sight of a football as a perfectly round rubber or plastic ball capped off with eye-catching or flashy patterns on the exterior. But, did you know that the first footballs were dull, made from pig bladders and often had an irregular bounce? 

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The first accounts of football being played in the east and the west both used ‘balls’ that were made from animal parts. In the East, the Chinese were known to play the earliest form of football in the Qin and Han Dynasties (255 BC – 220 AD) in which animal-skin balls were dribbled through gaps in a net stretched between two poles. The balls were actually stuffed animal fur covered in roughly stitched leather panels.

In the West, the medieval era (476 AD to 1453 AD) documented that pig bladders retrieved from killed livestock used in preparation for winter sustenance were subsequently inflated. They would then play a game in which they used their hands and feet to keep the object in the air. As these were irregularly shaped depending on the pig bladders retrieved, they were eventually covered in leather for better shape retention. 

Image Credit: National Soccer Hall of Fame

The 1800s provided the foundations of modern football. American self-taught chemist Charles Goodyear created and patented vulcanized rubber in 1836. In 1855, he designed the first vulcanized rubber soccer ball, meaning that footballs now had a regular shape with the rubber bladder, no longer dependent on the shape of the pig’s bladder. English leatherworker Richard Lindon further improved on Charles’ design in 1862, creating the first inflatable football, where the footballs could maintain their shapes for sustained periods. With the English Football League’s founding in 1888, mass production of the football began. Stronger rubber, better leather and improving craftsmanship enhanced the football, as it now spotted a classic six panels (of three stripes each) look. 

 

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The next significant milestone in football production transpired in the 1950s, where the first modern synthetic leather football was created, spotting 32 panels in the classic black and white colors (20 hexagonal and 12 pentagonal panels sewn together). Synthetic leather was an upgrade as it has less water absorption than leather while offering the same consistent flight, preventing the hardening of the football in wet conditions. 

Image Credit: Champion Sports

Today’s football uses cutting edge thermal bonding to create seamless panels that create a smooth and consistent kicking surface, while the number of panels has also been reduced from the traditional 32-panels (Brazuca only has six panels), to increase the perfect spherical shape, resulting in greater flight accuracy. 

The illustrious history and continuous development of the football itself signifies the growth of the beautiful game as well. As the game continues to embrace modernization (be it goal-line technology or the VAR), the football similarly employs technology advancements to perfect its production. The saying that ‘the ball is round, anything can happen’ has never been more fitting in today’s modern day era.

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