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Out of this world: Footballs through time

Originally consisting of a pig's or cow's bladder encased in leather, manufacturers are moving into space to continue the development of the football.

©Getty Images

The adidas Uniforia, the official ball designed for UEFA EURO 2020, represents the latest in football design technology.

Behind the bold, black brush strokes and flashes of light is a seamless 100% polyester cover, thermally bonded around a synthetic rubber bladder, and finished in a "hi-white" material allowing for increased visibility on the pitch.

It is a sharp contrast from those balls used at the game's formation, constructed of a pig's or cow's bladder inside a leather casing made up of panels held together by thick lacing.

A ball from 1950s
A ball from 1950s©Press Association

Slight variations in those early designs survived into the television era, though white balls had been trialled as early as 1951, with orange balls also used the same year for matches taking place in snowy conditions.

Between these two extremes are almost 60 years of man-made ingenuity. The transformation in ball technology since adidas produced the first tournament ball, the Telstar, has been remarkable, and so too its impact on the game itself. From the Telstar and Tango through the first entirely non-leather designs of the mid-80s to the products we see today, footballs have grown ever lighter and faster.

Black and white

Adidas began its production of footballs in 1963 and the Telstar – a 32-panel ball constituting 12 black pentagons and 20 white hexagons and named after a communications satellite – appeared at the end of the 1960s.

It was used at the 1968 European Championship before becoming the first adidas World Cup ball two years later at Mexico 1970. The model for the 1974 World Cup in West Germany featured the introduction of a Durlast polyurethane coating which provided waterproofing and helped maintain the ball's shape and resistance against abrasion.

Unlike leather, polyurethane is flexible and does not stiffen in cold conditions. The 1984 European Championship in France was the first major tournament to showcase a wholly non-leather ball, and two years later, the first such synthetic World Cup ball – the Azteca México – was deployed at the finals.

Making it official

It was not until 1 January 1996 that UEFA implemented FIFA-endorsed quality controls for the balls used in international competitions. Footballs were then divided into three quality groups: FIFA-approved, FIFA-inspected, and International Matchball Standard.

All footballs had to pass six quality controls – seven in the case of top-class footballs. In the same decade, the Premier League in England introduced a uniform official match ball. Soon other club competitions were following suit.

Before that, it was common practice for away teams to spend the days leading up to a match training with the ball used by their opponent. If, of course, they could find out what it was.

The modern day and beyond

©UEFA.com

The UEFA Champions League Star Ball appeared for the first time in 2001 – true to its name, it was adorned by eight stars, a design that has remained consistent through to 2020's unveiling of the Finale Istanbul.

Since 2006/07 there has been an official adidas match ball used at every UEFA Champions League fixture throughout the season. The Europa League also has its own specially designed ball, previously made by adidas but now produced by Molten since 2018.

At EUROs, the first truly significant design change since the 1980s came in 2004: this was the introduction of the first seamless ball, the Roteiro, for the finals in Portugal.

It was a silver-coloured ball whose carcass, bladder and panels were connected by thermal bonding, with each match ball at the tournament personalised with the names of the teams playing, the date and the venue. Over four million were sold worldwide, from mini-balls to official match ball.

By 2016, when adidas launched the Beau Jeu, the official match ball for EURO 2016, after an 18-month testing period, top-of-the-range balls boasted six identical panels, thermally bonded to provide a seamless surface, and the promise of a predictable trajectory, better touch and low water uptake.

The modern ball is said to gain just 0.2% weight in wet conditions, compared with up to 20% in the days of the old leather editions.

The future promises further advancement. In late 2019, adidas confirmed its balls "delivered by the NASA-contracted SpaceX CRS-18 cargo mission earlier this year have been tested in a series of experiments aimed to extend understanding of flight characteristics beyond an Earth-based wind tunnel. Depth in spherical aerodynamics will enable more design freedom for panel shape and texture."

That really does suggest a whole new ball game.

What the stars say

"The ball was so heavy – and on a wet day the weight could increase by 50% – no one considered long-range shooting as a sensible option. Very few goals were scored from distance and free-kick specials were very rare indeed. Tell you what, if someone had smacked a shot from 30 yards in my day, it would have been heralded as a flippin' miracle!"
Tom Finney, English legend of the 1950s

"When I was a boy, the ball was like a treasure. The boy with the ball was the king of the playground."
Polish great Zbigniew Boniek, now a UEFA Executive Committee member

"[My dad had] bought this leather ball which was lovely. I even remember the smell. We got the bus home and within 15 minutes of getting home I was on the field with it. All of a sudden you end up with about 30 mates because you've got the best ball in the street. I kicked the leather off it for a good year and a bit."
England and Marseille's European Cup finalist, Chris Waddle

Official adidas balls used during UEFA European Championships since 1968

The adidas Uniforia
The adidas Uniforia©UEFA

1968 Telstar Elast
1972 Telstar
1976 Telstar
1980 Tango Italia
1984 Tango Mundial
1988 Tango Europa
1992 Etrusco Unico
1996 Questra Europa
2000 Terrestra Silverstream
2004 Roteiro
2008 Europass
2012 Tango
2016 Beau Jeu (The final ball was called Fracas)
2020* Uniforia

Dimensions of a football

The Laws of the Game state that a football must be:

  • Of a circumference of not more than 70cm (28ins) and not less than 68cm (27ins);
  • Not more than 450g (16oz) and not less than 410g (14oz) in weight at the start of the match; 
  • Of a pressure equal to 0.6–1.1 atmosphere (600–1,100g/cm2 ) at sea level (8.5lbs/sq in – 15.6lbs/sq in)/

*EURO 2020 has been postponed until 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic

This article was adapted from that originally published in UEFA Direct edition 163.

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