Short Story of the Football Ball

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This article focuses only on the ball as an object. Football being as obscure to me as the use of a knife by a gallinacean, this article will not take any strong position on the new jersey of the French team or on the quality of any Muscovite lawn.

Around The World

The most important object of this world competition, the one that everyone is trying to capture, is the ball, this round and more or less rigid thing that would not unleash the passions if it had been square. Because its main characteristic: the ball rolls. It rolls so much that, since the dawn of time it triggers terrible maniac impulses which few are able to resist. Because yes, since the dawn of time, the man tries to seize the ball probably to “tidy up” the lawn, putting it in a “goal”. The word is not chosen at random, to enter the ball in a box is a real goal. So why did one creates it round you ask? Because the human being is player (and masochist) but especially masochist player.

The oldest trace of a game ball is found in Chinese civilization where the Chinese Cù jū is not only a brutal military exercise and, in a softer version, an entertainment popular with elites. Formed of the word Cù meaning “to strike” and of jū meaning “ball”, the Cù jū opposes several players trying to bring the ball into a goal.

Under the Tang dynasty (618 – 907), the ball was an inflated animal bladder covered with leather. And this model will be red hot for many centuries around the world.

Under Song Dynasty (960 – 1279), the ball could also be made of leather and filled with soft materials such as animal hair or feathers.

Huang Shen (circa 1682 or 1687, died after 1768)
Painting of Cù jū, XVIIIth century
Ink on paper

The Japanese played (and still play) the Kemari (literally “ball struck”) introduced at the beginning of the seventh century and directly inspired by Cù jū. Here again, Japanese refinement makes any attempt at dignity for any other people ridiculous. The goal here is not to throw a ball into a goal but to keep it in the air without dropping it as long as possible. Instead of jerseys in synthetic, the guys are dressed in court clothing and their ball (“mari”) is deer skin filled with sawdust.

Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (Japan, 1839-1892)
Tokugawa Yoshimune playing Kemari
Xylography, 1875

Japanese Kemari ball

Our Roman antiquity obviously ran after its ball in sessions of Harpastum, of which we do not really know the rules and the goal. What we do know, however, is that the ball named pila was made of rolled leather strips.

When you realise that neither bikini, neither football or beach volley are modern creations
I would like Princesse Tam Tam as your new Queen
Mosaic of the Roman villa of Casale, Piazza Armerina, Sicily
Building started late IIIrd century

Today in Southeast Asia, one always plays (barefoot) with a ball made of woven rattan. The game named Chinlon in Burma finds its equivalent in Thai and Malay Sepak takraw. To have seen it with my eyes, I can assure you that at the sound of the ball on one foot, I think this game is more a punishment than an entertainment. Today professional players play with plastic balls and shoes. You said sissy? Well… The more humble players are way more tough guys.


“To Mexico”, The Grateful Football

Nevertheless, those to whom the modern round ball owes everything, those without whom nothing would have been possible are also those for whom the ball game was long ago a real prelude to ritual ceremonies and sometimes to sacrifices: the Aztecs and the Mayans.

Mesoamerican civilizations considered the game of ball as a ritual game based on religious beliefs. It possessed a complex and very important cosmological significance. It was both a game and a form of ritual warfare. The game was called pitz in Mayan classic, pok’ol pok in Maya Yucatec, tlachtli or ullamaliztli in Nahuatl, or taladzi in Zapotec.

But in their kind of own world cup, it was not uncommon for the captain of the losing team to be sacrificed, which, you are sure, spiced things up a bit.

It is especially their ball that revolutionized the world of the ball in general since it was made of rubber and was filled with water. Namely, rubber does not grow on trees (actually yes but not in Europe, stay focus) but it changes everything. Elastic and bounce capacity, flexibility, all qualities were combined to make this material a future favorite in the manufacture of Western balls.

Olmec rubber Ball (Mexico)
dating back several centuries
(no precise datation)

©National Geographic

For lack of savoir-faire, rubber will not be exploited in the field of ball before the nineteenth century.

From Bladder to Tracker : Evolution of the Football Ball

It is really in 1890 that the industrial production of rubber starts. The leather-covered animal bladders, hitherto used throughout Europe for ball games, are gradually disappearing in favor of the latex “bladder” (the liquid form from which the rubber is extracted). They blow up quickly and are also less fragile than animal bladders.

At the end of the 19th century, English workers are generously relieved of their work on Saturdays, which allows them to discover the elitist sport of football. The Football Association then sees the number of clubs exploding since in approximately 35 years, England goes from 50 to … 10000 football clubs. Which makes a bundle of balls.

If latex bladders have replaced animal bladders, the appearance of the ball does not change. The outside is made of leather strips sewn together. The need to regularly inflate the bladder explains the presence of a seam left open and closed by a lace.

Final match ball of the 1930 World Cup 
©National Football Museum

The fragility of leather required many precautions. Playing in the mud or on the snow necessitated coating the ball with paraffin or graphite. It could also be rubbed with a candle. Once the match was over, it was necessary to clean and then generously apply lard or seal grease to the leather. Playing the ball must be earned at that time.

That’s why the English, the Germans and the French tried to test the plastic balls, especially those that Michelin started manufacturing for the children in the 1920s but the balls were hard in winter and soft in summer In short, it was rubbish.

The leather died in 1986 when the firm ADIDAS presented at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico the “Azteca” ball, entirely synthetic, and a legitimate tribute to pre-Columbian cultures. Since this wonderful year, the balls are a capital issue in the world football business.

Each world cup sees a new technological feat rolling on the grass of the largest stadiums in the world. ADIDAS ensures, the ball of the future is an area where “we can imagine everything now with new technologies: connected balloons calculating the speed of typing, with an onboard camera, resistant to all climates … Everything is possible.” (SoFoot, “Des labos aux pelouses, le ballon au centre de toutes les attentions”, written by Aymeric le Gall and published Tuesday, December 15th, 2015).

Official 2018 World Football Cup Ball 

One thing, on the other hand, is not ready to change: the human inability to remain stoic in the face of a ball. Like dogs (Oh fiiine, I’m kidding).


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