What’s that under the tree, the round parcel that won’t sit still?… A big black bomb from a comic? A giant fat-ball to hang above the bird bath? A soap-on-a-rope for Vanessa Feltz?
Nowadays, you can pick up Nike balls for 99p in the bargain bins outside sports shops. But once upon a time a ball, like a dog, was not just for Christmas – it had to be nurtured for years. They cost an arm and a leg, and that wasn’t the half of it: when it rained they were heavy and hard enough to break the other arm and leg.
The Encyclopedia of British Football summed up the impact of a regulation Size 5:
“On wet days the ball grew increasingly heavy as the leather soaked up large amounts of liquid. This, together with the lacing that protected the valve of the bladder, made heading the ball not only unpleasant but also painful and dangerous.”
Stan Cullis of Wolves and England was knocked out and seriously injured twice during matches as a result of heading the ball and having it fired into his face, and retired on the advice of doctors. Like many players of his era, he suffered dementia, often attributed to heading the old-style balls.
When a leather ball wasn’t available, kids in the Sixties and Seventies made do with a plastic substitute. The cheapest of these were as light and floaty as the proper ones were leaden. A young lad would have trouble getting a corner into the box using the leather ball, but these black-and-white plastic baubles would fly into the air at the slightest touch, making it impossible to score from any range further than three yards.
Better by far was the Wembley Trophy – a heavy orange ball with fake panels embossed upon it. It came in a special presentation box, and could do almost as much damage as a leather ball, especially on cold days, when it would sting the thighs, smash the testicles and bring tears to the eyes of any boys foolish enough to block its path.
Help was on its way. In the 1970s balls were coated with polyurethane to stop water retention. Today’s versions have a latex bladder and a synthetic leather casing, while Adidas World Cup balls are thermally bonded and machine-pressed.
And they let girls play these days. Bah, humbug.
For more balls: www.soccerballworld.com