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The Humble Football: A Eulogy

Cultural and Education Section of the British Embassy - British Council
 This article was generously provided to ClubFootball by the British Council, which operates in China as the Cultural and Education Section of the British Embassy.

 

The football. Without it there would be no superstar players, World Cups or global soccer industry. It is the forgotten hero of our game.
 
You don't hear much about the humble football. World Cup goalkeepers sometime blame new ball designs for swerving shots they fail to save; the ball is thrown at opposing players (as in the case of Turkey's Hakan Unsal, sent off for kicking the ball at an over-acting Rivaldo) or kicked angrily into touch, but otherwise it is ignored.
 
But Brian Clough, the legendary former manager of English clubs Derby County and Nottingham Forest, understood its significance. Ten minutes before kick off he would enter the dressing room, place a football on a towel and announce: "This is what we play with. Go and get it!" And that would be his team talk.
 
The Brazilians caress the ball, while the British are more likely to wallop, lump it or hoof it. Or as the FA's technical director Howard Wilkinson once joked: "Graham Taylor and I are going to pump nitrogen into the ball to make it go higher. Then we are going to give it a sedative at 2.30pm, an aspirin at half-time and Paracetamol at quarter to five."
 
The football has come a long way since a pig or sheep's bladder was first inflated in medieval times. The bladder was later surrounded by a leather shell and eventually rubber replaced animal gut. The FA did not stipulate the size of the ball until 1872. Until the 1960s leather footballs were brown, heavy when wet and had laces in them, which were painful when headed.
 
It was said that England winger Sir Stanley Matthews could cross the ball so accurately that the laces were always on the outside so that the centre forward could head it comfortably.
 
The synthetic ball made of polymers was invented in the 1960s and the first World Cup Final played with a synthetic ball was in 1986. Once footballs were brown and tanned, or orange in the memorable case of the 1966 World Cup Final. Today they're white (an idea introduced by Santos for night games) light and either synthetic or plastic coated, apart from those snowy days when high-visibility luminous orange balls are introduced.
 
Perhaps only referees fully appreciate the design of the match ball. Law Two of the FA rules states that the referee must check the ball for weight (410-450 grams), size (68-70 cms circumference), shape (spherical), pressure (0.6-1.1 atmospheres) and material (leather or other approved material). It's an adaptable design. In leagues for the partially sighted 150 ball bearings are placed inside a standard football to create a ball that you can hear coming.
 
Just occasionally the ball reminds us of its importance. The FA Cup Finals of both 1946 and 1947 were delayed by a burst ball. In the first World Cup Final of 1930 a different ball was used in each half after a dispute between Uruguay and Argentina.
 
Maybe the ball should have deflated while bound for the net in this year's World Cup Final, just to remind us how essential it is. If the ball had burst, play would have been restarted with a drop ball, unless it had burst in the penalty area, in which case the drop ball is given at the nearest point on the edge of the goal area. Not a lot of people know that, apart from referees.
 
But normally the ball doesn't burst, it just performs its role quietly and efficiently and thanks to the laws of the game, mercifully free of advertising. Next time you see it in action give it a cheer. It is after all, the most important spherical object in the world.

 

 

 

Pete May, July 2002

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