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How the Evolving Science of Ball Design Has Changed Football

Sam Pilger@sampilgerContributing Football WriterJune 6, 2013

Modern players like Lionel Messi have benefited from the technological advances made with football
Modern players like Lionel Messi have benefited from the technological advances made with footballDavid Ramos/Getty Images

When football was first played, people would use anything even slightly round, including a human skull, a bundle of cloth or a hog’s head as the ball. 

In the 19th century, when the sport became more organised, early footballs consisted of inflated pig, ox or bullock bladders inside leather cases with the seams tied together with boot laces. 

These balls—with some modifications, including rubber bladders replacing the animal ones—were used until the middle part of the 20th century. 

The leather balls were notoriously heavy, and could double in weight if played with in wet conditions as they would absorb the rain on the pitch.  

Playing attractive football was not easy as these balls were hard to manipulate, get under control or run with at length. 

It was never something you cherished, more something you got rid of, and often the brown balls could be difficult to see on muddy pitches. 

Worst of all, the balls were difficult to head and would cause headaches and could even knock players out unconscious. 

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Last year, a coroner in England ruled that the former England striker Jeff Astle, who played between 1959 and 1977, had died aged 59 due to heading these heavy leather balls during his career. 

It was in the 1960s that the first synthetic balls were used, which could replicate the qualities of leather without absorbing water, but the game persisted using some form of leather until the 1980s. 

The first World Cup finals to use a fully synthetic ball was the Mexico tournament in 1986. 

The balls would now retain their shape and were a lot lighter, helping players control them better and run with the ball more, overall encouraging more flair and expression. 

Could it be a coincidence Diego Maradona scored arguably football’s greatest ever goal for Argentina at the same World Cup in Mexico when he ran from the half-way line against England? 

In recent years, most of the sports brand manufacturers have tried to perfect the design of the football. 

But advances in technology don’t always lead to improvements, and the Adidas Jubilani—the ball used at the 2010 World Cup—was famously a disaster, and hated by players. 

Hailed as the most accurate ball ever, it was soon found to erratically move around in the air, changing direction several times in flight like those plastic balls you can still buy for a £1 from your newsagent. 

Naturally, goalkeepers hated it. England’s David James on the BBC called the ball “dreadful and horrible," while Italy’s 2006 World Cup-winning goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, also quoted on the BBC, said, “I noticed the first day that this Jubulani ball wasn't right. The World Cup brings together the best players in the world and to those players you must provide something decent. The new ball is not decent." 

NASA’s Ames Investigation Centre examined the ball and discovered it became unpredictable when it travelled at over 44 mph. 

The ball had the dual impact of causing players to lack of confidence in their ability, making them more tentative as so many passes went astray. 

Shots at goal moved a lot more in the air, making it difficult for goalkeepers, but these shots were so unpredictable that the 2010 World Cup actually had the lowest average of goals at the tournament since 1990. 

The ball took some of the blame for a relatively disappointing and sterile tournament. 

Nike now produces the ball used in most of the world’s leading leagues, the English Premier League, Italy’s Serie A and Spain’s La Liga. 

The most recent version is the Maxim, which they have said has been designed to be the most accurate, powerful, easy to control and identify football ever designed. 

With a perfect spherical shape, the ball’s micro-textured casing regulates airflow equally across its entire surface, making it less prone to wobble. 

These balls have been rigorously tested in wind tunnels. It has less drag in flight and produces more precise and truer shots. 

It is said players will also expend less energy hitting the ball greater distances, and on average, struck with equal force it can travel 6.8 metres further than any other ball. 

The five-layer casing and construction of the ball can improve players' touch of the ball, and the ball boasts a 360-degree sweet spot by evenly distributing pressure across the whole ball. 

Modern balls also feature graphics scientifically proven to help players see and respond to the ball better. As much as 99 percent of a person’s eye sight is peripheral, so in research visual scientists explored how the human eye locates and responds to the colour and design of a football while in motion. 

That’s the theory of course, but such technology can only help the world’s leading players, including Cristiano Ronaldo to Lionel Messi, and encourage flair and a proper passing game. 

Would Barcelona’s Tiki-Taka have been possible with a heavy leather ball? Probably not.

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