Football’s equipment evolution

George Eastham of Arsenal FC, 1st December 1960.
© Getty Images

Football has developed almost beyond recognition from the sport’s humble origins, and that progress has been matched in the equipment used.

From the boots through the kit to the football itself, modern-day players work with tools considerably different to those at the disposal of their early predecessors. Here, FIFA.com looks closer at the changes that have taken place.

*The football *Although tales of football’s early history involve hogs’ heads being used during medieval kick-abouts, the first dedicated footballs were made from animal bladders, blown up by mouth and then knotted. However, the ease with which these bladders burst led to more solid, leather and cork-encased versions being constructed in Britain during the 18th and 19th centuries, and to rubber and wood being used elsewhere. A breakthrough came in the mid-1800s with the invention of an india-rubber bladder, and a pump with which to inflate it, meaning that the roundness of the ball could – for the first time – be guaranteed.

In 1872, England’s Football Association laid down the first guidelines, stating that a football should be spherical, with a circumference of 68 centimetres, cased in leather, and weigh between 396 and 453 grams at the start of play. The mention of its weight at the kick-off was an important distinction as these early footballs had a propensity to absorb water, often more than doubling in weight during the course of a match. Combined with the laces that were required to hold them together, this made the task of heading decidedly hazardous, with concussions a common occurrence.

Regional variations also persisted, with the first-ever FIFA World Cup™ final in 1930 a case in point. Argentina and Uruguay had both brought their own balls and there was an impassioned pre-match argument over which should be used. The compromise? Argentina’s ball was used in the first half and Uruguay’s in the second, with that change at the interval perhaps crucial in La Celeste turning a 2-1 half-time deficit into a historic 4-2 triumph. The ball also emerged as a factor in the 1934 final, when Italy – 1-0 down to Czechoslovakia with eight minutes remaining – equalised through a Raimundo Orsi shot that swerved wildly beyond the goalkeeper’s grasp. Gli Azzurri went on to win the cup, and the following day Orsi attempted 20 times to repeat his ball-bending trick for the assembled photographers – failing every time!

Distortion of the ball’s shape was not uncommon at advanced stages of matches and could have been crucial to the trajectory of Orsi’s fateful strike. Adidas began supplying balls for FIFA tournaments in 1970, beginning with the iconic ‘Telstar’, and though still leather, a crucial advancement was these balls were coated with a special polyurethane to eliminate water absorption. However, it wasn’t until Mexico 1986, and the adidas ‘Azteca’, that the FIFA World Cup saw its first fully synthetic football, although the years since have witnessed further milestones, with the 1998 ‘Tricolore’ breaking with a purely black-and-white colour scheme, and the 2006 'Teamgeist' and 2010 'Jabulani' scaling new heights of technological sophistication.

*The boots *The first recorded football boots belonged to none other than Henry VIII, with a pair listed in the notorious English king’s ‘Great Wardrobe’ of 1526. Reports of these royal boots described them as being made of strong leather, ankle high and heavier than regular shoes of that era, and this model was to remain largely unchanged for centuries to come.

By the 19th century, footballers were still playing in heavy work boots, complete with long laces and steel toe caps, with the only significant development the hammering of metal studs or tacks to the soles to provide better grip on slippery surfaces. It wasn’t until 1925 that the first replaceable studs – changeable according to the underfoot conditions - came into existence, although it took another couple of decades for the focus to shift from merely protecting players’ feet to providing a boot better equipped to control, pass and dribble with.

The 1960s brought a further, significant break with tradition as the first below-the-ankle boots were introduced, while the ‘70s heralded a sign of things to come with boot sponsorship becoming common for star players, some of whom even took to wearing the first all-white versions. Further technological advances followed in the 1990s, with bladed studs introduced around the same time as adidas released the pioneering ‘Predator’, designed to provide better traction on the ball-striking areas of the boot.

From the ‘Predator’s’ accent on power and swerve, the focus of manufacturers in recent years has turned to lightness. Indeed, while footballers in the 19th century played in footwear that could weigh over a kilo in wet conditions, today’s players can benefit from boots that come in at less than a fifth of that weight at just over 150 grams.

*The kit *Henry VII might have been wearing football boots in the 16th century, but it wasn’t until the mid-1800s that the idea of coloured team shirts originally took root. The first evidence of these early strips is from English public school matches of the time, although it was just as common for teams to be distinguished by the wearing of coloured caps or sashes.

By 1867, though, a football handbook was advising that teams should attempt "to have one side with striped jerseys of one colour, say red, and the other with another, say blue." By the 1870s, strips were becoming an established ingredient of the game, with many clubs, such as Blackburn Rovers, adopting designs that remain unchanged to this day.

There was also a steady move away from the wearing of knickerbockers or full-length trousers - often with a belt or braces - to the shorts that have become standard in modern-day kits. Further familiar advances soon followed, with a 1909 ruling stipulating that goalkeepers should wear a colour distinct from outfield players, and a 1921 decree compelling away teams to carry a second ‘change’ kit in the event of a colour-clash.

Around the same time, there were experiments with the numbering of shirts, although this did not become common until after World War II. As the game became increasingly international, the best and most comfortable designs and materials became the norm, while the 1960s and ‘70s brought the first signs of commercialisation. By the time the 1980s rolled around, sales of replica kits, and deals to display sponsors’ logos, had become accepted practice, while colour schemes - particularly in change kits - became increasingly adventurous and, at times, outlandish.

Squad numbers are perhaps the most recent milestone in the evolution of the football kit but, if the evidence above shows anything, it’s that further developments are more than likely.

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