Tuesday, February 13, 2018

History of soccer balls (19th Century)

Desmond Morris (1981) had some interesting theories why footballs were kicked and not handled. He described the origins of the early Aztec game, and considered the ball represented a symbol of the sun and players were forbidden to touch it during the game. The goals were stone rings set high on the side of walls of the playing field. The flight of the ball was taken to represent the cycle of the sun through the heavens with the rings the sunrise and sun set. After the match the ball was ceremoniously burnt. In other parts of the world, the ball was thought to represent the severed head of an animal, indeed sometimes it was teams competed to carry off the prize and bury it in their territory. All for good luck. Another variation on this theme was the ball was the head of a vanquished foe and kicking it played out the final humiliation. In the medieval game the ball represented a prize to be fought for and won. In the modern game, according to Morris, the ball is the missile to knock out the opposition.

One plausible explanation why soccer in the northern hemisphere became a winter sport was described by Manley (1992). The Medieval custom was to kill live stock in November in preparation for winter sustenance. This gave an excess of pig's bladders. Poet, Alexander Barclay (1476 - 1552) described this in 1508:

They get the bladder and blowe it great and then
With many beans or peasons put within
It ratleth, soundeth, and sineth cleare and fayre
With foot and with hande the bladder for to smite
If it falls to the grounde they lifte it up agayne
The sturdy plowmen, lustie, stronge and bolde.

Many historians accept the reason for the late edition soccer to sport despite its popularity was the lack of a uniform shaped ball, suitable for kicking. South American Indians were known to play a game with a lighter more elasticized ball, but it took from the fifteenth century to the nineteenth century before Europeans were able to manufacture stable rubber products. Pig bladder footballs were never a standard shape or size and all depended on the size and shape of the pig's bladder. The more irregular the bladder, the more unpredictable behaviour came from the ball once kicked. Before air inflators, pig¹s bladders were blown up by mouth and clay pipes were used to this effect. Shoemakers covered the gaps with stitches to make the ball feel harder and more durable. Charles Goodyear patented vulcanized rubber in 1836 and it took until 1855 before he produced the first vulcanized rubber football. The panel pattern was similar to a traditional basketball. The first competition ball was used in a game in 1863 between the Oneida Football Club, the first organized team in the US, and a team of players from Boston Latin and Boston English Schools. There is some dispute as to the nature of the game, whether it was a version of soccer or a precursor to American Football, they called it the Boston game. The ball became the trophy from that game.

At the Great Exhibition, Crystal Palace, London (1851), a Rugby (town) boot maker by the name of William Gilbert had two exhibits i. e. a round leather ball suitable for dribbling; and an ovoid ball for a game of carrying and handling. Gilbert had previously made his reputation as supplier of rugby balls to Rugby School. His wares were considered superior and harder than any rivals and made his fortune selling oval balls not only in England but also to Australasia. The Gilbert name is still a major manufacturer of rugby products today.

Originally Gilbert worked for H.J Lindon who tragically lost his wife when she contracted a lung disease from blowing up many hundreds of pig's bladders. Whether this inspired him or not remains unknown but Lindon developed the first inflatable rubber bladder in 1862. This ensured the ball remained hard and oval. He claimed to have invented the rugby ball but sadly did not patent the idea. The round ball was preferred because it was easier to kick and the oval ball was easier to handle.

In 1863 the English Football Association was established and they set out written rules for the game. At first there was no reference to the dimensions of the ball. However in 1872 they decided to regulate the ball dimensions.

“the ball must be spherical with a circumference of 27 to 28 inches with a weight at the start of the game of 13-15 ounces “

This is still very much in force today with FIFA, the only change being in 1937, the weight increased to 14-16 ounces.

Once the English Football League in 1888 and the Scottish League in 1890 the demand for footballs increased. Companies like Mitre and Thomlinson's of Glasgow started to mass produce standard competition footballs. Strength of the leather and the skills of the cutters and stitchers were the main factors in producing a football that would retain shape. The top grade covers were made with leather from the rump of a cow while lower quality balls were made from the shoulder. Advances in ball design came with the development of interlocking panels instead of the previously used leather sections that met at the north and south poles of the ball. The balls were then produced with a more acceptable round shape.

By the nineteenth century strong rubber bladders were available which could withstand intense heavy pressure. Balls made from inner tubes and covered with heavy brown leather were light enough to bounce yet could be kicked. The leather outer was made by stitching 18 sections of tanned leather arranged in six panels of three strips each. The sections were stitched together by hand with five-ply hemp, leaving a small lace up slit on one side. This was done with the ball was turned inside out and once completed the whole sphere was reversed to turn inside out. A collapsed rubber bladder was inserted through the open slit and then inflated to the approved pressure. The slit was then laced tight. The ball was ideal for kicking but proved painful when using the head due to the heavy stitching. Soccer balls were made from cowhide which presented two major problems. Balls made from natural hide varied in quality depending upon which part of the cow had been used to make the ball. Footballs varied in thickness and quality and the leather often degraded during play. A second problem related to the ability for cowhide to absorb water and became heavier as the game progressed. This slowed the game down and made heading difficult and painful. Later when a new type of inflatable valve was invented this improved the ball surface and footballs were made completely lace less. Heading the ball and dribbling became easier and when waterproofing the ball became possible this completed the revolution.

In the final of the 1930 World Cup, Argentina and Uruguay, the teams could not agree on which ball to use. So they decided to use an Argentinean ball the first half and a ball supplied by Uruguay in the second half. Argentina wer ahead at halftime 2-1, however, Uruguay came back to win the match in the second half 4-2 using their own ball.

Manley D (ed) 1992 The Guinness book of records 1492: The world five hundred years ago Enfield: Guinness Publishing Ltd.
Morris D 1981 The soccer tribe London: Jonathan Cape, London 193-194.