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Podcast | Editor's pick of the day - Trivia around FIFA footballs

Football fever is setting in, and to take its true temperature, on our Editor’s Pick of the Day, we go straight to balls… footballs. Gussy up – it’s ball season.

Moneycontrol News @moneycontrolcom

Balls – a word that always needs exposition. Depending on the conversation, the word can mean bravery; a part of the male anatomy; an event where Cinderella can only stay until midnight; an expletive you can yell in defiance or incredulity or anger; things you can eat; or simply things that every human being anywhere ever has played with at one time or another. Those things you catch or throw or bounce or kick or whack or bat or spin or dodge – balls.

Football fever is setting in, and to take its true temperature, on our Editor’s Pick of the Day, we go straight to balls… footballs. Gussy up – it’s ball season. My name is Rakesh, and you are listening to Moneycontrol.

Before we turn our attention to football, let’s take a minute to understand that most basic of questions – what constitutes a ball? It is not as silly a question as it seems. From a skull to a pig’s bladder to the current engineering marvels they are, balls have indeed rolled a long way. They have not been without their fair share of nomenclature-related confusion, to say nothing of the bad rep.

Jerome K Jerome, writer of ‘Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog),’ joked that if celestial beings looked down on earth and saw humans playing ball, they would be convinced that the “ball must be some malignant creature of fiendish power, the great enemy of the human race.” Across the pond, Thomas Jefferson was no big fan of the orb either. “Games played with the ball stamp no character on the mind,” was his declaration on the matter. Like that old poem goes,

For every Alexander the Great or Henry number Eight,
there was another King, Queen, or Potentate
citing distraction from Affairs of the State

decided the ball must be an Object of Hate

Then there is the confusion about the shape of the ball itself. Should it be round? Should it have to bounce? Is a ‘prolate spheroid’ considered a ball? These are questions that have dogged man and ball for generations now. Legend goes that a great Irish rugby star finished a big match and ran into his friend James Joyce, the wonderful writer of Ulysses and the confusing concocter of Finnegans Wake. The ever-joyous Joyce said to the player, “Y’know, Fred, y’didn’t play with a ball today, by definition balls are round; nor even with an oval, which demands a plane configuration: y’played with a prolate spheroid.”

Whatever their shape, throughout history, humans have enjoyed kicking a ball or something-like-a-ball around. During the Ts'in and Han Dynasties (255 BC-220 AD), the Chinese played 'tsu chu', in which animal-skin balls were dribbled through gaps in a net stretched between two poles. According to historians, some ancient Egyptian rites are said to have similarities with football. Both the ancient Greeks and Romans were believed to have versions of football of their own.

Years after conquering Mexico, in 1528, the (in)famous Hernan Cortés returned to the royal court of Spain’s King Carlos V. He brought with him riches beyond the dreams of the Spanish court; he brought to court an exotic chocolate drink made of cacao beans. Yet, what truly caught the attention of the courtiers and his fellow countrymen was a small, simple object – a bouncy rubber ball.

The Spaniards were spellbound as they witnessed two teams of Aztecs play the 3000-year-old ball game called ‘Ulama’ using only their hips, knees, and buttocks. Ulama originated with the ancient Mesoamerican Olmecs, literally “rubber people.” This springy, bouncy, orb was nothing like the lifeless leather spheres filled with hair, feathers and air that the Europeans had used to play early versions of tennis, jai alai and football. But make no mistake, Ulama was not all fun and bounce. As much as Ulama was enjoyed as a spectator sport, with venison and an alcoholic drink made of fermented corn – the Mayan equivalent of hot dogs and beer – it could also bring great ruin.

The game was soaked in gambling. The ancient Mayans and Aztecs gambled their homes, their fields, and their corn granaries. They sold their children in order to bet and even staked themselves and became slaves to be sacrificed later if they were not ransomed. In some ulama games the stakes were truly high—and it had nothing to do with wagering. Playing fields were consecrated to the gods, and occasionally losers could be ritually decapitated as shown by reliefs at ball courts found at Chichen Itza and elsewhere that depict skulls and beheadings. All things considered, their new masters, the Spanish took a rather dim view of the ballgame even if they were fascinated by the ball itself, and banned it in 1585.

If the Spanish could ban something, would the British be far behind? Surely, you must be joking. In fact, they were well ahead. Two hundred years ahead, m’lord! As early as 1314, the mayor of London issued a proclamation banning a rather rowdy sport that had tickled the fancy of large numbers of the city’s rambunctious residents. “For as much as there is great noise in the city caused by hustling over large balls from which many evils might arise which God forbid: we command and forbid on behalf of the King, on pain of imprisonment, such to be used in the city in future,” read the proclamation.

Through proclamations and derisions, the ball has bounced along without a care, like rubber and glue.

Rubber, incidentally, changed the game for balls. In 1836, Charles Goodyear patented vulcanized rubber. Prior to this, balls were dependent on the size and shape of the pig's bladder. The more irregular the bladder, the more unpredictable the behavior of the ball was when kicked. However, it would not be until the twentieth century until most balls were made with rubber bladders.

In 1855, Charles Goodyear designed and built the first vulcanized rubber soccer balls (footballs). In 1862, H.J. Lindon developed one of the first inflatable rubber bladders for balls. The inspiration do so may have had a tragic background to it – his wife previously died from lung disease, reportedly from blowing up many hundreds of pigs’ bladders.

The balls with the rubber bladders ensured that they remained hard and oval. In 1872, the England Football Association (EFA) met to hammer out the specifics of the ball, which continue to be upheld today. According to the Laws of Football, the ball must be spherical with an outer casing of leather or other approved materials.

The circumference shall not be more than 28 in., nor less than 27 in, while the weight at the start of the game must not be more that 16 oz., nor less than 14 oz. The numbers remain the same for the football even today, but what has undergone a drastic change is the material with which to make the football.

Many iterations of the ball have since graced field, foot, and head. Some though… not so gracefully. If some required to be re-inflated even during a game, some ended up bursting, and some others ended up hurting the players’ heads as those balls tended to absorb water. Needless to say, there were disputes about the quality of balls at the highest level – the First World Cup in 1930. Argentina and Uruguay simply could not agree on which ball to use, and decided to use a ball supplied by Argentina in the first half, and one supplied by Uruguay for the second half. Argentina was ahead at halftime 2-1 using their soccer ball. However, Uruguay came back to win the match in the second half 4-2 using their ball! Make what you will of that.

Balls were brown/tan up until then. White balls only made it into the field in 1951. It was thought that spectators could see the ball better under the floodlights if they were white. It was not until the 1960s that synthetic balls made it to the game. And it was only well into the 1980s that the synthetic leather ball completely replaced the leather football.

The modern football that you and I know and love is based on a design called the Buckyball. Nothing to do with Buckingham Palace or the Westminster Cathedral, this was in fact an American creation, by the architect Richard Buckminster Fuller who came up with the design when he was trying to find a way for constructing buildings using a minimum of materials. The modern soccer ball is essentially a Buckminster Ball or Buckyball consisting of 20 hexagonal and 12 pentagonal surfaces. When they are sewn together and inflated they make a near perfect sphere.

The black spots on the ball helped players to perceive any swerve on the ball. The first such 32-panel ball was marketed by Select in the 1950s in Denmark. In the latter half of the twentieth century and in the twenty-first, much research has gone into the flight of the ball, and the changes one can see in the trajectory of the ball based on the material used in constructing it. MIT researched how the 2014 “brazuca” ball swerved – perhaps in an attempt to tell us all how to bend it like Beckham; NASA tested the ball in a wind tunnel and a water channel. Brazuca was of course the official ball for the 2014 World Cup. The tradition of the “official” FIFA world cup soccer ball was started at the 1970 World Cup in Mexico.

In our lead up to the 2018 Men’s FIFA World Cup in Russia, let’s take a look at how the ball has rolled on in the past few World Cups, and what made them special… or not special.

1. We start in 2002 – Fevernova, was the official ball of the World Cup held in Japan and South Korea. Adidas gave the Fevernova an Asia-inspired look while also incorporating some high-performance interior material into it. Syntactic foam was used to decrease the weight of the Fevernova. However, many critics felt the ball was too light with some goalkeepers even blaming it for the goals they conceded in the tournament.

2. Next, 2006 and Germany. Teamgeist was the name of the official ball of the Cup. The Teamgeist was created using the revolutionary 14-panel design with the seams heat-sealed rather than sewn. The ball marked the end of multiple ridges and seams with the aim of improving player accuracy. The Teamgeist also featured the colours of the German national flag as well as the golden colour of the World Cup trophy.

3. 2010 and the infamous Jabulani. The official ball of the 2010 South Africa World Cup is often remembered as one of the most hated balls of all time. The Jabulani was made using just eight panels and incorporated a patterned surface that was meant to improve its aerodynamics. The ball came in for a lot of criticism from the players because of its unpredictable flight, which caused keepers numerous problems throughout the tournament. “It’s terrible… like a ball you’d buy in a supermarket,” said Julio Cesar of Brazil. When it’s coming from one of the greatest goalkeepers of his generation, you want to believe him. It was not just the goalkeepers though. Luis Fabiano called the ball supernatural, and no, not in a good way, because he followed that up with a simple “It’s very bad.”

4. 2014 and Brazuca. Bitten by the criticism the Jabulani received, FIFA was extra cautious going into the next installment. The official ball of the 2014 Brazil World Cup was the subject of intense scrutiny and even more intense testing, including by the MIT and, wait for it, NASA! Adidas came out with the most-tested ball ever which was released following public voting in the host nation. The Brazuca was made using only six panels and was decorated with swooping patterns, which gave it a completely unique look. The ball exceeded FIFA standards after undergoing extensive lab tests and was also well received by the players.

5. And finally 2018 and Russia. History does not repeat itself, but it has a way of rhyming. And this time the official ball harks back to the first official ball used back in 1970 in Mexico. It is a Telstar, but it is Telstar 18. And keeping up with zeitgeist, the ball is smartphone compatible. Sporting the simple black and white colour of the very first Telstar, Adidas have maintained the same structural framework of the Brazuca for the Telstar 18. However, the Telstar 18 features an embedded NFC chip, which enables users to interact with the ball using a smartphone.

There we have it. The Summer Ball that is FIFA is upon us. Soon we will be up to our eyeballs watching the shorts-clad belles of this ball. If you think there are too many balls on the air, worry not, the only place you can be on the ball with every ballgame is Network18 where we will carry the best and the latest. Don’t drop the ball; stick with us, like ball and chain, because the ball is in your court. What do they say? If there’s grass on the court, play ball. Like the kids would have it – amazeballs. (Have I left out any? Balls.)

Barbara Tuchman, a Pulitzer-winning writer no less, once said, “In human activity, the invention of the ball may be said to rank with the invention of the wheel.” The greatest celebration of a ballgame is driving up to us in no time. To paraphrase the Bob Dylan song, this ball is on fire, and is rolling down the road. Best notify my next of kin, this ball shall explode.
First Published on Jun 13, 2018 07:30 pm
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