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It’s a tradition since the 1970’s World Cup to use a new ball for every tournament. In a huge event, Adidas’ marketing team presents the soccer ball that merges the host country’s culture, spirit, and traditions with the latest technology in sports equipment. Every four years, a new soccer ball emerges, new colors, new technology, new… materials? What are soccer balls made of anyway?
The soccer balls we use nowadays are made of a synthetic leather cover and a rubber bladder. The outer covering is made of pieces of different shapes according to each ball model, and they can be stitched or glued with latex adhesive. A cloth made of cotton, natural or artificial, helps to stiffen the synthetic leather covering.
Soccer balls evolved alongside the sport. The first ones were made of animal bladders, mostly pigs, so their size, shape, and quality depended on the animal’s characteristics. One day, the bladder was covered with leather for more consistency and a better body. Then the irruption of Charles Goodyear and his vulcanized rubber changed the soccer balls’ universe forever.
What are soccer balls made of?
The high-end soccer balls used in every FIFA tournament are made of synthetic leather, with a latex bladder ball inside.
Modern soccer balls are made of either synthetic leather, PVC (polyvinyl carbonite), PU (polyurethane), or a combination of PVC and PU, that’s for the outer part. Inside modern soccer balls, there is a rubber bladder with a valve.
The majority of the standard soccer balls have thirty-two panels, twenty black hexagonal, and twelve white pentagonal shaped.
Balls in World Cups used the thirty-two-panel model from 1970 to 2002.
For the bladder, the story is a little bit different. First, it would be necessary to say that there are three types of bladders nowadays; the latex bladder ball, the butyl bladder ball, and the synthetic rubber bladder ball.
- The Latex Bladder Ball. This kind of bladder offers superior responsiveness to the players’ touch. It bounces more and better. And it’s the chosen one for the biggest matches and competitions. Its only defect is that it doesn’t retain the air for long periods and needs to be refilled frequently.
- The Butyl Bladder Ball. Soccer balls with butyl bladders can retain the air for weeks. That makes them the favorites for training and regular matches. On the other hand, their bouncing is not that good, and they’re slightly heavier.
- Synthetic Rubber Bladder Ball. The cost to produce this bladder is low compared to the other two, and its production takes half the time. It retains the air better than the latex bladder but worse than the butyl.
Between the outer cover and the bladder, soccer balls have the lining. A cloth made of cotton or nylon, placed there to increase the player’s control over the ball and make it more comfortable to kick.
High-performance soccer balls have several layers in the liner, while cheap balls have just two or four layers—the fewer liner layers, the hardest to control it, and the less pleasant to kick it.
Lastly, modern balls have air valves. They can be made out of silicone or butyl. Silicone valves are used more often in high-performance soccer balls. They’re soft, and the needle to inflate them goes in smoothly.
Butyl valves are more rigid; they keep the air for more extended periods than the silicone ones.
Modern soccer balls have less than thirty-two panels; the Adidas Telstar 18 used in Russia’s last World Cup has six. This is because experts believe that when a footballer kicks a joint, the shot loses accuracy.
So far, Adidas’s improvement to every new ball performed very well, with one exception, the Jabulani ball, created for the World Cup in South Africa in 2010.
What happened with the Jabulani ball was unpreceded. Players struggle to decipher the secrets of the ball. England goalkeeper David James described the Jabulani as dreadful and horrible.
It took 43 games of the South African World Cup, more than 64 hours of soccer until a player hit the goal in a free-kick.
Before that, every single free-kick would hit the clouds, at best. According to the Technological Research Centre of the Sao Paulo University, the absence of stitches and its perfect spheric shape made the air go around and on top of it, not helping it go down at a certain point.
What machines are used to make a soccer ball?
For the outer covering, two different machines are necessary, but it can be only one. The difference is the method chosen to add the cotton layer to the synthetic leather; it can be done by hand or with the press.
- The Press. The synthetic leather and the cloth used to stiffen the outer covering go through the press and come up united in the other end, glued with latex adhesive.
- Die-cutting press machine. This equipment cuts the synthetic leather into hexagons and pentagons. It’s a simple machine equipped with dies shaped as either hexagons or pentagons. The leather is placed on the device that descends upon it and cut the panels.
The process of making the synthetic rubber (SR) bladder ball, the most common of the bladders, requires more machines than the outer cover. Let’s see.
- Raw Rubber Cutter. The first step is to prepare the natural rubber to be processed. Big chunks of rubber are cut into smaller ones to ease its processing.
- Internal Mixer Machine (Kneader Machine). This equipment is a two roll mill. The rubber goes through the mills and gets mixed.
- Roller calender. This is a four-roll mill machine, and it turns the rubber into a 30 or 35 cm sheet that rolls into the next device.
- Automatic Powdering Machine & Slice Cutting. The sheet coming from the previous machine is sprayed with powder and cut into 50 cm long pieces approximately.
- Inner Bladder Forming Machine. After the valve is applied, this device unites the edges of the bladder and gives it form.
- Inner Bladder Vulcanized Machine. This machine uses sulfur and heat to make the rubber more resistant and durable.
But, as we can imagine, it wasn’t always like that. In the middle of the 1800s, people used pig bladders covered in leather. People would blow into the bladder to the desired size, then they would cover it up, and then just play.
However, not all pigs are the same, nor their bladders, so soccer balls back then didn’t share a size pattern. Balls didn’t even follow the same bouncing behavior after being kicked.
In 1855, Charles Goodyear patented the first vulcanized rubber bladder ball, opening a whole new world of possibilities. Thanks to him, H.J Lindon developed one of the first inflatable rubber bladders for soccer balls a few years later.
Lindon improved Goodyear’s rubber bladder; he added the valve so balls could be inflatable. It’s been reported that Lindon’s inspiration was his wife’s death. Apparently, H.J Lindon’s wife died of a lung condition caused by blowing so many pig bladders.
Soccer balls improved a lot from Lindon’s creation to the first world cup, played in 1930 in Uruguay.
How much does it cost to make a soccer ball?
The average cost of producing a professional soccer ball is around $20 and $30 in some cases. It’s shallow if compared to the stores’ soccer balls’ prices, between $150 and $200. The reason is that Adidas, Nike, and most of the leader brands decide to manufacture them in Pakistan and China.
Pakistan is arguably the world capital of soccer balls production. The country exports more than 200 million soccer balls per year. The city of Sialkot has over 2,000 factories dedicated entirely to soccer balls’ output.
In Pakistan, soccer balls’ factories represent a lot more than an income resource. Many women in Pakistan can’t find a job; still, at least 40% of their workers are females in soccer ball factories.
The production cost of producing a soccer ball is quite a controversial topic. For instance, for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, social dumping made Adidas change its production headquarters from China to Pakistan.
The Brazuca, as the ball it’s called, was sold for nearly $200, more than double the average monthly salary of a Pakistani employee of a soccer ball manufacturing company.
The German company did not divulge the production cost of the Brazuca.
How to make a soccer ball step by step
The process of making a soccer ball can be divided into four steps.
- Lamination. This is the process where the outer cover is glued to its back up cloth to ensure more resistance and stiffness. It can be done in the press or by hand.
- Cutting panels. The rectangle one by one and a half meters panel is cut into hexagons and pentagons. The panels are separated into groups of 32. Twenty hexagons and twelve pentagons.
- Printing process. Once they’re cut and separated, each panel group of 32 is painted following each soccer ball design.
- Hand stitching. When the printing process is over, the panels are stitched together.
The 25 meters long synthetic leather roll is cut into rectangles of one by one and a half meters. These square-shaped sheets are taken into the die-cut press machine.
It’s common to use two die-cutting machines—one equipped with hexagonal dies, the other with pentagonal shapes.
After that, the panels are analyzed, and the defective ones are discarded. The hexagonal and pentagonal shaped dies not only cut the panels, but they also cut tiny holes along their perimeter, facilitating the stitching process.
Once the panels passed quality control, they’re packed in groups of 32 and handed to the stitchers. The balls are stitched in halves. After each half is completed, they go to the final step of assembly.
A stitcher will unite the two halves, insert the rubber bladder, and close the ball.
For modern balls, like the Brazuca used in Brazil 2014 or the Telstar 18 used in Russia, the procedure is slightly different.
For starters, these balls have no stitches. They’re glued; they’re regularly and repeatedly tested to ensure high performance.
Next is the regular procedure of a modern ball production process of a factory in Sialkot, Pakistan.
- The panels are cut. A machine cuts the panels according to the ball’s design.
- Painted. Then, the panels are painted.
- Baked. After painting, the panels go through heat treatment to ensure color’s endurance.
- Stamped. After the heating process, each panel gets FIFA’s stamps with different information. Manufacturer, name of the ball, and so forth.
- Heated again. The panel’s second wave of heat is to ensure the stamp’s durability.
- Stamped again. The panels go through a final process of stamping to add some details.
- Final heat. The panels are exposed to 150°F (almost 66°C).
- Glued. A machine applies glue to the panel’s edges.
- Assembled. After receiving the glue, the panels are put together over a circular-shaped mold.
- Blow-dry. The balls receive the heat from this of a hair-dryer-looking device so the glue can settle and solidify.
- Filled in. Once the bladder is installed inside the ball, it’s inflated.
- Polished. When the ball is inflated and complete, it gets wiped and polished.
- Weigh. After the ball is inflated and polished, they’re put over the scale to certify they match FIFA’s regulations. Then, they’re ready to get tested.
As the process is remarkably precise, that makes the balls differ little to nothing among them. It would be fair to say that the same ball used in an official match is the one we can get at any Adidas or Nike store.
After the balls are finalized, they get tested.
A machine would throw them at 45 miles per hour (almost 75 km/h) against a solid metal plate to simulate a player’s kick during a game. To ensure every soccer ball can resist the best strikers’ kicks, this test is repeated five thousand times with each ball.
Balls are also tested to perform in all weathers. They get water-tested. A machine presses the ball against a tiny pool full of water.
The point of this test is to ensure that water doesn’t go inside the ball, changing its weight, responsiveness, sensitivity to the touch, and of course, its bouncing.
They’re also tested to perform in the heat. To test balls’ resistance to heat, they’re baked for seven days at almost 100°F (almost 38°C).
What is the best material for a soccer ball?
As we mentioned before, most balls are made of synthetic leather, PVC (polyvinyl carbonite), PU (polyurethane), or a combination of PVC and PU.
Every material offers its pros and cons.
- PVC Balls. Balls made of this material are usually more rigid and more durable. They have more significant water resistance and tend to last longer than the others. PVC balls are also the cheapest.
- PU Balls. Softer than PVC balls, PU balls also have a higher responsiveness to touch.
- Synthetic Leather. This kind of soccer ball is used in high-level soccer matches. It’s responsiveness, and general performance is much higher than PVC and PU balls.
There are a few more factors to be considered when picking a soccer ball.
- Stitched or glued. To practice, high-performance soccer is recommended to use stitched balls since the glued ones are usually less predictable, and their responsiveness is not that good.
- The number of panels. Balls with less amount of panels tend to respond better when players try curved shots. The regular 32-panel soccer ball is more comfortable to control for beginners; it’s harder to perform curved shots with it, but it is still a beginner-friendly ball.
Apart from the standard 32-panel size 5 ball used in soccer, they’re also a few alternatives.
- Turf Soccer Balls. It’s the name given to the regular PVC soccer balls we found in supermarkets. They are designed for amateur fun. They’re not meant for the professional practice of the sport.
- Indoor Soccer Balls. They are also size 5, but they’re designed to bounce less than the regular soccer balls.
- Beach Soccer Balls. A size 5 ball designed exclusively to be kicked with bare feet. They tend to have bright colors to make it easier to identify in the sand.
- Futsal Soccer Balls. This size 4 ball is smaller despite its weight being the same as a regular size 5 ball. They are also designed to bounce less.
Finally, to make a soccer ball last longer, there are a few tips to be followed.
- Keep it clean. Even when balls get dirty every time we used them, it’s a good idea to keep them clean and free of filth to prolong their usable life.
- Use it inflated. It’s vital to use it fully inflated. Balls perform better at their specified air pressure. Most balls have imprinted in their panels the right amount of recommended pressure.
- Don’t sit on it. Apart from dangerous, balls are not meant to support 150 pounds (70 kg) on top of them. This might deform the ball and make it lose its sphericality.
- Mind the terrain. Besides this tip is mostly about esthetics, it’s important you consider that soccer balls made for playing in the grass, will lose their stamps and colors if used in concrete, or another rough surface.
Following these tips will ensure a healthy and long life for any soccer ball.