Lincolnshire, England. The crowd cheer when the ball breaks loose. From one end of the field to the other, the players chase, their snouts hovering just above the grass. It’s not a case of four legs being better, rather a novel way to attract customers to the Woodside Wildlife and Falconry Park. During the matches, volunteers are drawn from the crowd to hold goal posts at either end of the run the pigs usually race on. With five pigs playing, two teams of two and a referee, and a ball designed to leak feed as it rolls (Stevenson) the ten-minute competition is fraught with tension. While the pig’s contributions to “the beautiful game” (Fish and Pele 7) have not always been so obvious, it could be argued that specific parts of the animal have had a significant impact on a sport which, despite calls to fall into line with much of the rest of the world, people in Australia (and the US) are more likely to call soccer.
Precursors to the modern football were constructed around an inflated pig’s bladder (Price, Jones and Harland). Animal hide, usually from a cow, was stitched around the bladder to offer some degree of stability, but the bladder’s irregular and uneven form made for unpredictable movement in flight. This added some excitement and affected how ball games such as the often violent, calico matches in Florence, were played.
In the early 1970s, the world’s oldest ball was discovered during a renovation in Stirling Castle, Scotland. The ball has a pig’s bladder inside its hand-stitched, deer-hide outer. It was found in the ceiling above the bed in, what was then Mary Queens of Scots’ bedroom. It has since been dated to the 1540s (McGinnes). Neglected and left in storage until the late 1990s, the ball found pride of place in an exhibition in the Smiths Art Gallery and Museum, Stirling, and only gained worldwide recognition (as we will see later) in 2006.
Despite confirmed interest in a number of sports, there is no evidence to support Mary’s involvement with football (Springer). The deer-hide ball may have been placed to gather and trap untoward spirits attempting to enter the monarch’s sleep, or simply left by accident and forgotten (McGinnes in Springer). Mary, though, was not so fortunate. She was confined and forgotten, but only until she was put to death in 1587. The Executioner having gripped her hair to hold his prize aloft, realised too late it was a wig and Mary’s head bounced and rolled across the floor.
The pig’s bladder was the central component in the construction of the football for the next three hundred years. However, the issue of the ball’s movement (the bounce and roll), the bladder’s propensity to burst when kicked, and an unfortunate wife’s end, conspired to push the pig from the ball before the close of the nineteenth-century.
The game of football began to take its shape in 1848, when JC Thring and a few colleagues devised the Cambridge Rules. This compromised set of guidelines was developed from those used across the different ‘ball’ games played at England’s elite schools. The game involved far more kicking, and the pig’s bladders, prone to bursting under such conditions, soon became impractical. Charles Goodyear’s invention of vulcanisation in 1836 and the death of prestigious rugby and football maker Richard Lindon’s wife in 1870 facilitated the replacement of the animal bladder with a rubber-based alternative. Tragically, Mr Lindon’s chief inflator died as a result of blowing up too many infected pig’s bladders (Hawkesley). Before it closed earlier this year (Rhoads), the US Soccer Hall of Fame displayed a rubber football made in 1863 under the misleading claim that it was the oldest known football.
By the late 1800s, professional, predominantly Scottish play-makers had transformed the game from its ‘kick-and-run’ origins into what is now called ‘the passing game’ (Sanders). Football, thanks in no small part to Scottish factory workers (Kay), quickly spread through Europe and consequently the rest of the world. National competitions emerged through the growing need for organisation, and the pig-free mass production of balls began in earnest. Mitre and Thomlinson’s of Glasgow were two of the first to make and sell their much rounder balls. With heavy leather panels sewn together and wrapped around a thick rubber inner, these balls were more likely to retain shape—a claim the pig’s bladder equivalent could not legitimately make. The rubber-bladdered balls bounced more too. Their weight and external stitching made them more painful to header, but also more than useful for kicking and particularly for passing from one player to another. The ball’s relatively quick advancement can thereafter be linked to the growth and success of the World Cup Finals tournament. Before the pig re-enters the fray, it is important to glance, however briefly, at the ball’s development through the international game.
World Cup Footballs
Pre-tournament favourites, Spain, won the 2010 FIFA World Cup, playing with “an undistorted, perfectly spherical ball” (Ghosh par. 7), the “roundest” ever designed (FIFA par.1). Their victory may speak to notions of predictability in the ball, the tournament and the most lucrative levels of professional endeavour, but this notion is not a new one to football. The ball’s construction has had an influence on the way the game has been played since the days of Mary Queen of Scots.
The first World Cup Final, in 1930, featured two heavy, leather, twelve-panelled footballs—not dissimilar to those being produced in Glasgow decades earlier. The players and officials of Uruguay and Argentina could not agree, so they played the first half with an Argentine ball. At half-time, Argentina led by two goals to one. In the second half, Uruguay scored three unanswered goals with their own ball (FIFA). The next Final was won by Italy, the home nation in 1934. Orsi, Italy’s adopted star, poked a wildly swerving shot beyond the outstretched Czech keeper. The next day Orsi, obligated to prove his goal was not luck or miracle, attempted to repeat the feat before an audience of gathered photographers. He failed. More than twenty times. The spin on his shot may have been due to the, not uncommon occurrence, of the ball being knocked out of shape during the match (FIFA).
By 1954, the Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) had sought to regulate ball size and structure and, in 1958, rigorously tested balls equal to the demands of world-class competition. The 1950s also marked the innovation of the swerving free kick. The technique, developed in the warm, dry conditions of the South American game, would not become popular elsewhere until ball technology improved. The heavy hand-stitched orb, like its early counterparts, was prone to water absorption, which increased the weight and made it less responsive, particularly for those playing during European winters (Bray).
The 1970 World Cup in Mexico saw football progress even further. Pele, arguably the game’s greatest player, found his feet, and his national side, Brazil, cemented their international football prominence when they won the Jules Rimet trophy for the third time. Their innovative and stylish use of the football in curling passes and bending free kicks quickly spread to other teams. The same World Cup saw Adidas, the German sports goods manufacturer, enter into a long-standing partnership with FIFA. Following the competition, they sold an estimated six hundred thousand match and replica tournament footballs (FIFA). The ball, the ‘Telstar’, with its black and white hexagonal panels, became an icon of the modern era as the game itself gained something close to global popularity for the first time in its history.
Over the next forty years, the ball became incrementally technologically superior. It became synthetic, water-resistant, and consistent in terms of rebound and flight characteristics. It was constructed to be stronger and more resistant to shape distortion. Internal layers of polyutherane and Syntactic Foam made it lighter, capable of greater velocity and more responsive to touch (FIFA). Adidas spent three years researching and developing the 2006 World Cup ball, the ‘Teamgeist’. Fourteen panels made it rounder and more precise, offering a lower bounce, and making it more difficult to curl due to its accuracy in flight. At the same time, audiences began to see less of players like Roberto Carlos (Brazil and Real Madrid CF) and David Beckham (Manchester United, LA Galaxy and England), who regularly scored goals that challenged the laws of physics (Gill).
While Adidas announced the 2006 release of the world’s best performing ball in Berlin, the world’s oldest was on its way to the Museum fur Volkerkunde in Hamburg for the duration of the 2006 FIFA World Cup. The Mary Queen of Scot’s ball took centre spot in an exhibit which also featured a pie stand—though not pork pies—from Hibernian Football Club (Strang). In terms of publicity and raising awareness of the Scots’ role in the game’s historical development, the installation was an unrivalled success for the Scottish Football Museum (McBrearty). It did, however, very little for the pig.
Heads, not Tails
In 2002, the pig or rather the head of a pig, bounced and rolled back into football’s limelight. For five years Luis Figo, Portugal’s most capped international player, led FC Barcelona to domestic and European success. In 2000, he had been lured to bitter rivals Real Madrid CF for a then-world record fee of around £37 million (Nash). On his return to the Catalan Camp Nou, wearing the shimmering white of Real Madrid CF, he was showered with beer cans, lighters, bottles and golf balls. Among the objects thrown, a suckling pig’s head chimed a psychological nod to the spear with two sharp ends in William Golding’s story. Play was suspended for sixteen minutes while police tried to quell the commotion (Lowe).
In 2009, another pig’s head made its way into football for different reasons. Tightly held in the greasy fingers of an Orlando Pirates fan, it was described as a symbol of the ‘roasting’ his team would give the Kaiser Chiefs. After the game, he and his friend planned to eat their mascot and celebrate victory over their team’s most reviled competitors (Edwards). The game ended in a nil-all draw. Prior to the 2010 FIFA World Cup, it was not uncommon for a range of objects that European fans might find bizarre, to be allowed into South African league matches. They signified luck and good feeling, and in some cases even witchcraft. Cabbages, known locally for their medicinal qualities, were very common—common enough for both sets of fans to take them (Edwards). FIFA, an organisation which has more members than the United Nations (McGregor), impressed their values on the South African Government. The VuVuZela was fine to take to games; indeed, it became a cultural artefact. Very little else would be accepted. Armed with their economy-altering engine, the world’s most watched tournament has a tendency to get what it wants. And the crowd respond accordingly.
Incidentally, the ‘Jabulani’—the ball developed for the 2010 tournament—is the most consistent football ever designed. In an exhaustive series of tests, engineers at Loughborough University, England, learned, among other things, the added golf ball-like grooves on its surface made the ball’s flight more symmetrical and more controlled. The Jabulani is more reliable or, if you will, more predictable than any predecessor (Ghosh).
Through support from their Governing body, the Real Federación Española de Fútbol, Spain have built a national side with experience, and an unparalleled number of talented individuals, around the core of the current FC Barcelona club side. Their strength as a team is founded on the bond between those playing on a weekly basis at the Catalan club. Their style has allowed them to create and maintain momentum on the international stage. Victorious in the 2008 UEFA European Football Championship and undefeated in their run through the qualifying stages into the World Cup Finals in South Africa, they were tournament favourites before a Jabulani was rolled into touch. As Tim Parks noted in his New York Review of Books article, “The Shame of the World Cup”, “the Spanish were superior to an extent one rarely sees in the final stages of a major competition” (2010 par. 15). They have a “remarkable ability to control, hold and hide the ball under intense pressure,” and play “a passing game of great subtlety [ ... to] patiently wear down an opposing team” (Parks par. 16).
Spain won the tournament having scored fewer goals per game than any previous winner. Perhaps, as Parks suggests, they scored as often as they needed to. They found the net eight times in their seven matches (Fletcher). This was the first time that Spain had won the prestigious trophy, and the first time a European country has won the tournament on a different continent. In this, they have broken the stranglehold of superpowers like Germany, Italy and Brazil. The Spanish brand of passing football is the new benchmark. Beautiful to watch, it has grace, flow and high entertainment value, but seems to lack something of an organic nature: that is, it lacks the chance for things to go wrong. An element of robotic aptitude has crept in. This occurred on a lesser scale across the 2010 FIFA World Cup finals, but it is possible to argue that teams and players, regardless of nation, have become interchangeable, that the world’s best players and the way they play have become identikits, formulas to be followed and manipulated by master tacticians. There was a great deal of concern in early rounds about boring matches. The world’s media focused on an octopus that successfully chose the winner of each of Germany’s matches and the winner of the final. Perhaps, in shaping the ‘most’ perfect ball and the ‘most’ perfect football, the World Cup has become the most predictable of tournaments.
The origins of the ball, Orsi’s unrepeatable winner and the swerving free kick, popular for the best part of fifty years, are worth remembering. These issues ask the powers of football to turn back before the game is smothered by the hunt for faultlessness. The unpredictability of the ball goes hand in hand with the game. Its flaws underline its beauty. Football has so much more transformative power than lucrative evolutionary accretion. While the pig’s head was an ugly statement in European football, it is a symbol of hope in its South African counterpart. Either way its removal is a reminder of Golding’s message and the threat of homogeneity; a nod to the absence of the irregular in the modern era. Removing the curve from the free kick echoes the removal of the pig’s bladder from the ball. The fun is in the imperfection.
Where will the game go when it becomes indefectible? Where does it go from here? Can there really be any validity in claiming yet another ‘roundest ball ever’? Chip technology will be introduced. The ball’s future replacements will be tracked by satellite and digitally-fed, reassured referees will determine the outcome of difficult decisions. Victory for the passing game underlines the notion that despite technological advancement, the game has changed very little since those pioneering Scotsmen took to the field. Shouldn’t we leave things the way they were? Like the pigs at Woodside Wildlife and Falconry Park, the level of improvement seems determined by the level of incentive. The pigs, at least, are playing to feed themselves.
The author thanks editors, Donna Lee Brien and Adele Wessell, and the two blind peer reviewers, for their constructive feedback and reflective insights. The remaining mistakes are his own.
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