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Football World Cup: the plastic ball sends leather off the pitch

Football World Cup: the plastic ball sends leather off the pitch
Football World Cup: the plastic ball sends leather off the pitch

Football is currently the world’s most popular sport; it is played by millions and watched on television by billions of spectators. Although the 2018 World Cup was the most successful ever, and Neymar and Messi have become household names and idols around the world, the main component of the sport, by definition, the ball itself, remains largely unknown.

Ask any non-initiate what the 2018 World Cup football or Champion’s League football are made of, and they will reply “leather, of course!”. And the design that will first spring to mind will be that of a black and white football.

Yet leather was replaced a very long time ago, at first partially and then entirely by synthetic materials. Let us take a trip through memory lane.

Animal skin and inflated bladders

The first known balls are from 3,000 years ago and were discovered in China. At that time, balls were made from an animal skin envelope, filled with feathers or hair, and were kicked between two posts. From the Middle Ages to the 18th century, practitioners of Soule, the precursor of football, used inflated pig bladders covered with a leather membrane. The round ball rolled but also bounced, adding another element of fun to the game. After Charles Goodyear invented vulcanisation in 1842, natural bladders were gradually replaced by rubber bladders. As a result, balls became rounder, and bounced better. In 1860, the MacIntosh company developed a ball made of an inflatable bladder, covered by an envelope comprising 18 panels of leather, closed with a lace tucked into the inside of the ball in order to avoid injury when doing headers.

The first footballs were lightweight when dry, but became dangerously waterlogged and heavy in rain, leading to a risk of injury when trying to head it. The lace would be replaced bymore aesthetically-pleasing and less troublesome stitches. Over the years, as interest in football grew along with rules and the emergence of professional teams in England in 1885, various types of footballs were developed, with a gradual increase in the number of panels.

Synthetic materials for dry and lighter footballs

In the mid-1960s, the leather would be covered with a waterproofing layer of polyurethane, or artificial leather, and the bladders would be made from latex. As a result, the ball remained dry regardless of the weather and players could head the ball without risking injury. In 1968, the German equipment manufacturer Adidas began producing professional balls with Santiago, the first of a series of models used in international competitions. The balls, which had always been uniformly brown, were now given a new design comprising black pentagons combined with white hexagons that stand out from the pitch on black and white television screens.

One standout ball, christened Telstar, which was used during the 1970 World Cup in Mexico, would capture people’s imagination everywhere. What had previously been a simple toy became a marvel of high technology. It was also in Mexico that the Azteca, the first football made entirely of multi-layer synthetic materials, able to withstand impacts, deformation and which was perfectly waterproof, was used during the 1986 World Cup, 32 years ago.

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