What goes around comes around
Arguably the one constant factor in football over the years is the ball itself. And in truth, the basic manufacturing process has altered little for over a century. In the fourth part of our series looking at various aspects of FIFA's Denominations Programme, we take a closer look at how the football gets from the drawing board to the centre circle.
Times change and technology moves on apace, but the aim of football manufacture is the same today as it has always been: to create a ball which allows players to exploit their skills rather than hinder them. That is also the avowed aim of FIFA's Denominations Programme, which seeks to bring universal standardisation to football quality via a structured testing and licensing process.
It has proved to be a highly-successful initiative since its inception two years ago, given the increasing number of licensees now sanctioned to use the coveted FIFA logo on their products. Nevertheless, despite advances in materials, the basic structure of the ball has changed little in the last 100 years – and traditional skills like the accuracy of cutting and quality of stitching still play a vital role.
The first mass-produced footballs in the late 19th century comprised a straight forward two-piece structure: an inflated pig's bladder surrounded by a leather casing. In truth, that two-piece structure – bladder and casing – has remained to the present day, but two significant advances have occurred in the interim: to combat the understandable problem of water absorption, various synthetic coatings have been introduced to make balls non-porous.
In addition, the problem of shape retention was addressed in the late 1940s by introducing a lining comprising a series of interwoven backing cloths which backed the leather casing. Together the lining and casing are known as the carcass. It all means today's footballs have four main components – bladder, carcass, coating and stitching.
The bladder: the original pig's bladder was gradually replaced by natural rubber, but today's bladders are made from latex, which gives a ball its life or 'zing'. In the USA and Far East, some bladders are made from a synthetic substance called butyl, but this is only used in low-grade toy balls, and is felt to be a relatively 'dead' material.
The carcass: leather was long thought to be the only possible material for the outer casing of a football, but today various synthetic forms of leather are the norm. These synthetic leathers are based on polyester non-woven materials, sometimes impregnated with Polyurethane for added strength and wear. On cheaper balls, such as replica or training balls, PVC has become the most common material. It is tough and easy to print and laminate.Apart from shape retention, the backing cloths to the casing also provide added strength and damping. The effectiveness of this lining has a significant effect on the flight characteristics and distance.
The coating: the usual choice is Polyurethane, which is stable, easily-printed and water-repellent. Occasionally Vulcanised Rubber is used as a coating.The stitching : vital to a ball's performance, the best-quality waxed and twisted polyester threads are used to give permanently tight seams. This helps reduced airflow drag, which in turn increases speed and distance.
The first stage is to roll out the material to be used for the outing casing of the ball. These days, this casing is made from several layers of synthetic foam-filled leaves, which are glued together to produce a tough, smooth exterior.
The leaves are cut into the exact amount needed to make one ball, and pre-printed with any brand names etc. before being cut. The FIFA logo would be printed at this point in the process.
The number of individual panels required are then cut out, and holes are pre-punched in preparation for stitching (see pictures). The stitching is performed by turning the ball inside out, so none of the stitches show on the outside. Indeed, a different needle is used to complete the stitching of each panel, which effectively makes the final knot 'disappear'.
The stitched ball is then reversed, the bladder inserted and inflated. Then another process begins for those footballs seeking either FIFA Approved, FIFA Inspected or International Matchball Standard status. That process is the independent testing required to achieve one of these hallmarks. For a more detailed look at testing procedure please refer back to the article in the last issue of FIFA Magazine.
How a ball is manufactured, step by step.
The panel debate
In the constant quest for the football with perfect performance characteristics, manufacturers have experimented with – and produced – footballs with various numbers of panels.
The first footballs simply had six panels, joined top and bottom like a medicine ball. In more recent times, there have been 18, 26, 30 and 32-panel varieties. Many consider the 18-panel ball to have the truest flight characteristics, but in the UK most professional clubs play with a 26-panel ball, whereas mainland European sides have always played with a 32-panel ball, with the ball traditionally known as the 'continental' ball. As such, it was the understandable choice for the France-hosted World Cup Final this year.
But there are now other contenders in the market, with some Denominations Programme licensees developing and marketing six, 12- and even 13-panel balls.
The argument in favour of these balls is that less stitch points and less angles result in greater sphericity, less risk of bladder damage and improved water tightness, among other benefits.
Certainly, there appears to be no lack of quality – one of the 12-panel 'Penalty' footballs made by Cambuci SA of Brazil has already won the FIFA Approved hallmark. Whatever the arguments, the holy grail of production perfection will always lure manufacturers, now with the added benchmark of the Denominations Programme tests.
Economic realities mean that most football manufacturers are faced with the fact that relatively high overheads preclude them for mass production of footballs in the western world. This has brought about a dependency on Pakistan, the Sialkot region to be exact, as the main source of stitching and construction, even though cut and prepared materials may be shipped there.
That is because despite technological advances, and experiments with stitching machines, hand-stitching still produces the best-made footballs. Currently, 75% of the world's footballs are put together in the Sialkot region. Of course, the sourcing of cheap labour is open to abuse, and FIFA has played a key role in outlawing the exploitation of children working in the region.
Players the world over can look forward to sharpening and displaying their skills with ever-sympathetic footballs. Long gone are the days when a football could be virtually impossible to kick and extremely painful to head in the latter stages of a rain-sodden match. The push now is to refine synthetic materials to further achieve the balance everyone in the game wants: a ball which can be passed or shot over long distance whilst maintaining a true flight – but also having the responsiveness to allow a player to bend or dip the ball according to his or her skill level.
Indeed there are no limits to the technological advances which could be made, but the round shape of the ball itself is unchanged – one could say it has come full circle.