What Are Soccer Balls Made of Today?

Michael Claunch

What Are Soccer Balls Made of?

Soccer balls are so omnipresent in our lives that we rarely stop to think of how they are manufactured and which materials are used. This object is seen on kids’ playgrounds and prime-time television, and its simplicity of design continues to mesmerize the masses. Still, only rare fans are interested in questions such as how much a soccer ball costs to make or where the balls used in professional leagues are made. 

While in recent times soccer ball materials, colors, and manufacturing technology have evolved, the basics have not changed in decades. Soccer balls still look mostly the same and behave very predictably when kicked. To understand how modern balls were developed, we need to take a look at the technical side of things and consider what soccer balls are made of.

History of the soccer ball design

While the history of the game stretches back to the Middle Ages, the earliest balls made exclusively for soccer were manufactured in the early 19th century from materials that were easily available at the time. The answer to what the first soccer balls were made of may sound strange today, as they were essentially just pig bladders covered with leather. Such balls could be inflated and were sized very similarly to modern footballs. As you might imagine, these balls were rather crude and had a rough surface that limited how far the ball moved both on the ground and in the air.

1930s soccer ball, Skagit County Historical Museum, La Conner, Washington, U.S. / Joe Mabel, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

A groundbreaking innovation was made in 1844 when Goodyear started making balls from vulcanized rubber. After a while, a new design was pioneered with a plastic or rubber layer inside a soccer ball that could be inflated and smooth leather on the surface. This combination of soccer ball materials proved very durable, but eventually natural leather was found to be water absorbent, making the balls heavy and difficult to handle under wet conditions. Instead of real hides, synthetic leather and PVC were introduced as the most optimal materials for the surface layer, with polyurethane coating added to provide the final touch.

Soccer ball manufacturing specifications

If you believe that soccer balls are made of natural leather, that’s not the case any longer. Modern soccer balls are produced of a variety of materials using different technological processes, with the exact procedure depending on the expected quality level. As was mentioned earlier, a variety of synthetic materials are used for the outer layer, mostly polyurethane and polyvinyl chloride. The inner tube of the ball is typically made of rubber and can be inflated or deflated through a valve. Multiple layers of cloth are inserted between the two and fixed in place with adhesives. Patches of synthetic leather are finally stitched into place according to a pattern to give the ball its final look.

Dimensions of the ball are standardized to ensure fairness of play. The size of a soccer ball needs to be between 27 and 28 inches in circumference to be eligible for professional use. The weight of the ball must be between 14 and 16 ounces, and the internal pressure should not exceed 15 pounds per square inch. Soccer balls used for youth categories can be smaller than the aforementioned standards, with a circumference of just 18 to 20 inches for kids under seven years of age.

If you are wondering how a soccer ball is made, the process is divided into multiple parts that can take place in different locations. Manufacturing of the inner bladder and the cutting of synthetic leather panels is done using machines, but the finishing is sometimes treated as a separate phase. The best balls used in elite competition are hand-stitched, which is why they are more expensive than regular models.

Why do soccer balls typically feature black and white polygons?

Classic design with 32 black and white pentagonal panels is so iconic that it serves as an instantly recognizable symbol of soccer. Interestingly enough, this layout wasn’t always used, and it represents a byproduct of soccer’s immense popularity. Since soccer games were broadcast live while television was still in the black-and-white era, viewers had trouble tracking the uniformly colored leather ball on the ground. The brilliant solution proposed by Adidas was to introduce the checkered pattern with black pentagons, and it worked so well that most soccer balls still feature it to this day.

Most professional soccer balls follow a high-contrast design, in part because it makes it easier for players to precisely aim their shots. On occasions when visibility is lower than normal (snow on the field, foggy day, heavy rain), balls in bright colors such as yellow or orange might be used instead. Recreational balls are designed more liberally and come in a wide variety of colors, although they frequently feature the iconic pentagons to make it clear which sport they are intended for.

Which companies are the top soccer ball manufacturers?

In addition to understanding what soccer balls are made of, it’s savvy to learn about the leading manufacturers at this moment. Unsurprisingly, top sports equipment brands are dominating this market as well as supplying the official balls for major competitions. Nike is the official ball brand of the English Premier League; Adidas makes the balls for Major League Soccer, while NCAA soccer teams use balls made by Wilson. Umbro, Molten, Mitre, and Puma are also among well-regarded ball brands that offer premium ball models.

Adidas soccer ball at Euro 2016
Adidas soccer ball at Euro 2016 / Image by Jörg Struwe from Pixabay

Interestingly, a majority of soccer balls for the global market (including approximately 50% of balls used by FIFA) are made in a single country – Pakistan. The industry has long roots in this part of the world, and hand-stitched balls made in hundreds of local factories are renowned for their quality and used by all major brands. This is why Pakistani-made soccer balls will be among those seen on the field during the upcoming 2022 World Cup in Qatar. However, in recent years ball manufacturers from China, India, and Indonesia are catching up, and their products are accounting for a growing market share.

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