With more than 3.5 billion fans around the globe, soccer is the most popular sport in the world. This is no recent development, however. Humans have been playing some form of soccer for centuries.
One of the most important components of any soccer match is — of course — the ball! When most people think of a soccer ball, the image of a black and white ball comes to mind. But did you know the soccer ball has been through some major changes over the years?
The earliest soccer balls were unconventional at best. Entire villages would gather for soccer matches, using animal skulls and inflated animal bladders as balls. Unlike modern-day soccer balls, these items were irregularly shaped, making them unpredictable when kicked.
As various improvements were made to soccer balls over the next few centuries, the ball as we know it today began to slowly emerge. By the 1900s, soccer balls were being made with tanned leather. Prototypes of these balls looked a bit like a strange hybrid of modern-day volleyballs and footballs.
Along with the new styles of balls came new problems. Balls relying on tightly tied laces to seal air inside leaked badly. Players would have to stop to re-inflate the ball multiple times during a game.
Leather balls were good for kicking, but due to their tendency to absorb water, could become very heavy. This posed a serious threat of injury if a player hit the ball with his head.
World War II brought a temporary solution to the problem. By using synthetic paints to coat the leather, balls absorbed less water from the grassy fields.
A much lighter, safer synthetic ball would be introduced in the 1960s, but it was not until the 1980s that synthetic balls completely replaced leather balls. Synthetic soccer balls are still used today. In addition to resisting water absorption, they also offer more consistent flight and bounce.
So where did the signature black-and-white pattern come from? Until the mid-1900s, soccer balls were either brown or white. In the 1950s the first orange ball was put into play, with the hopes of making it easier for players and spectators to see the ball in the snow. Soccer fans would have to wait until the 1970 World Cup to see the first black-and-white ball roll onto the field.
The ball that changed the look of soccer forever? The “Telstar.” The 1970 World Cup in Mexico was the first televised World Cup ever. The Telstar took its name from a combination of the words “television” and “star.”
But there was one little problem. A white ball viewed on a black-and-white TV wasn’t easy to see. Game officials needed to come up with a way to make the ball easily viewable to those watching at home. Their simple solution? Paint black pentagons on the white ball.
To this day, the Telstar remains the most common design for soccer balls.