The humble soccer ball didn’t always look like the one you know and love today. In fact, even if you were transported back into the recent history of the game, chances are you’d be kicking around an inflated pig bladder. In this post, we’ll be exploring the history of the soccer ball as we look to answer why soccer balls are made of hexagons and pentagons.
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Why Are Soccer Balls Made of Hexagons and Pentagons?
Before we get to the reasoning behind the distinct design of the modern-day soccer ball, you need to get an idea of how it evolved to its current state. Here are some of its most notable ancestors:
A military exercise called “Tsu’ Chu” that was practiced as early as 200-300BC is known to have some uncanny similarities to modern-day soccer. The game was played with what might be the soccer-ball’s oldest family member: a leather ball stuffed with feathers and hair.
The game consisted of players split into two teams, the goal being to get the ball into the net strung between two bamboo posts with only the use of their chests, feet back and shoulders. It was a rather difficult exercise because the opening of the net was only about 10-15inches wide.
The ancient Roman game “Harpastum,” played with a small hard ball stuffed with feathers, also boasts some similarities to modern-day soccer.
The game consisted of two teams battling to keep the ball on their half of the field for the longest amount of time. Harpastum is infamous for being extremely violent, with multiple records of serious injuries including broken limbs. The players were permitted to fight each other and utilize wrestling holds to hinder the opposing team.
“Ball sports,” otherwise known as “mob football” emerged in Europe as early as the 9th century, and it’s as scary as it sounds. Each region seemed to have its own take on the highly competitive game. A notable example is the Welsh “cnapan,” a large-scale, violent sport, that dates back to the Dark Ages.
The game was organized between two villages that were relatively close together. The idea being to get the ball to the church porch of your own town. The ball used for cnapan was unlike the other ancestors of the soccer ball, in that it was a slippery wooden ball, intended to be difficult to covertly smuggle. The players in each game could number over 2000, which heightened the risk of injury, and even death in some cases.
The Evolution of the Modern-Day Soccer Ball
Now that we’ve covered the soccer ball’s treacherous past, it’s time to shed some light on how it ended up the way it looks today.
In 1836, Charles Goodyear patented the manufacturing process of vulcanized rubber, which was a serious milestone in the evolution of the soccer ball. But it wasn’t until 1855 that he released the rubber match ball. Before then, most balls consisted of an inflated pig bladder encased in leather. Those balls had been prone to irregular shapes, thus making them hard to control.
The design of the soccer ball was revolutionized yet again by H.J Lindon in 1862 when he produced a ball that utilized an inflatable “rubber bladder” that held its shape.
A bit of soccer ball folklore for you: it was rumored that Lindon was compelled to create balls made of rubber because his wife had died from a lung disease that she contracted from blowing up too many pig bladders.
Pentagons and Hexagons: The Soccer Ball’s Pinnacle of Evolution
White soccer balls became the norm in 1951. But the soccer ball that’s most commonly known today—which boasts a black and white exterior made up of pentagons and hexagons—became the standard in the 1960s.
After centuries of different designs, soccer ball manufacturers discovered that a ball composed of leather hexagons and pentagons created a perfectly spherical shape that held its form. The design was coined the “buckyball,” and it is still the most common ball on soccer fields today.
The buckyball made its international debut at the 1970 World Cup Finals in Mexico. The historical ball was called the Telstar and it was manufactured by Adidas. It was designed with a black and white pattern so it would be visible on the black and white televisions of the era. Although we have color TV now, the iconic black and white pattern still remains popular today.
Want to know more soccer facts? Here’s a post on why Americans call it soccer instead of football.