Black and White
and Kicked All Over

Kicking around human skulls or inflated cow bladders, as our ancestors did, can get old after a while, and the irregular shapes of bones and guts make each pretty hard to dribble and pass. After thousands of years of evolution, the first machine-made soccer ball was introduced at the 1855 Paris Exhibition, when Charles Goodyear showcased an application of his vulcanized rubber. The black sphere was similar in pattern to today’s basketball. In fact, soccer balls were used in the first basketball game ever played, in 1891, in Springfield, Massachusetts.

But rubber quickly lost its shape as well as its bounce. To add resilience, the ball was covered with leather. This only marginally improved retention of the spherical form, and the material warped when wet. So a number of small leather panels were sewn together to minimize stretching and water deformation. From the late 1800s until a mere 36 years ago, most soccer balls featured 18 strips of hand-stitched brown leather. One innovation, introduced on some balls in the early ’50s, was a coat of whitewashing that allowed spectators to follow the action during night games. Other balls were tinted orange in order to be seen against snow.

Early models featured a small lace for loosening the cover and filling the rubber bladder inside with air. Old-time players recall bloodying their foreheads when butting the laced balls, or ducking to avoid lacerations. Laces stuck around until just after World War II, when manufacturing advances allowed an air hole to be placed flush with the ball’s surface.

It wasn’t until 1970 that soccer balls made a huge advance. The occasion was the sport’s quadrennial showcase, the World Cup, in Mexico. Inspired by the work of architect R. Buckminster Fuller—particularly his geodesic dome for Expo ’67 in Montreal—Adidas designed the Telstar, a ball with multiple black and white leather panels, which has evolved into the standard.

Telstar is short for “Television Star”; the ball’s coloration was meant to be seen easily on black-and-white TVs. But it was the shape that was the crucial innovation. “It’s not a sphere anymore,” says Elizabeth Thompson, executive director of the Buckminster Fuller Institute. “It’s a truncated icosahedron.” When you kick a round ball, the entire force is concentrated at the point of contact, resulting more easily in dents. But when you boot a truncated icosahedron, a 32-faced polyhedron, which in the modern soccer ball consists of 12 black pentagons and 20 white hexagons, the force is distributed throughout the entire form. The icosahedron is also the form of one variety of the carbon-60 molecule, known as the buckminsterfullerene. Discovered in 1985, the molecule has since proven to have applications ranging from superconductors to antibiotics. See? Soccer is life, just as any soccer freak could have told you.

As far as new-fangled variations are concerned, “It’s all marketing now,” says Jack Huckel, director of museum and archives at the National Soccer Hall of Fame in Oneonta, New York. “The technical problems of balls have pretty much been solved.” When this year’s World Cup kicks off in Germany on June 9, there will be a newly designed ball from Adidas with just 14 panels, fewer seams, more colors, and plenty of logos. The company expects to sell 10 million this year. But buyers will still have to practice their moves if they want improved performance on the field. “Anything can be appliqued on there,” Huckel says of the new balls, “but still they’re all Telstars underneath.”

Mark J. Miller is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer.

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