Let’s start with the totally obvious. Every football is round and you either kick it, throw it or head it. But that is where the similarity ends.
Children will generally use a smaller ball compared to those used by adults. A smaller ball is often handier when playing indoors or on a 5-a-side pitch. If you play in a league, you may find that it has certain regulations regarding ball size. You also need to check the size regulations when it comes to child / youth / school football. Sizes also vary for Futsal and beach football.
If you want a ball that has a ‘true’ bounce and will be hard-wearing, then go for synthetic balls. They are water resistant and hard wearing. A leather ball might sound traditional but it gains weight when used in wet conditions and struggles to retain its shape. Rubber or plastic balls are the cheaper option but their bounce can be more irregular. Plastic balls are often too light if used outdoors, simply because they are affected by windy conditions.
Bladder or no bladder
A bladder is like a balloon inserted into the inside of footballs. This helps the ball retain its shape and hardness. Rubber and plastic balls are often made without bladders and can often develop a slight bulge where the valve is situated.
Hard or soft
This is a preference but, as with size, can be determined by rules of any league you play in. Children generally prefer a softer ball because a hard one can hurt their feet if they’re not wearing proper boots. A softer ball is easier to control. If you buy a ball with a valve, then it’s up to you how hard / soft the ball should be. Leather balls can become hard with age. Plastic balls are usually hard. Rubber can be very soft. Synthetic gives you the best of both worlds.
As with size and firmness, this can be down to your league regulations. A heavy ball can be tricky when used outside in soggy conditions. It can easily get bogged down and refuse to roll properly.
Indoors or outdoors
If the ball is going to be used indoors mainly, you can manage with one of lesser quality. It doesn’t have so much wear and tear. However, if you are going to be using the ball outdoors, in possibly rough surface conditions and in all weathers, it’s important to get a good quality ball.
This comes down to the sort of ball you need. Very cheap balls are likely to be rubber or plastic and not too durable. They will be of lower quality. However, they will probably be fine for young children. If you play in a senior league, then you will want to get the best possible football so that you get the best flight, bounce and control. For recreational use, a mid-price ball should be fine.
Sewn panels or no panels
Go back to 1978 and the first of the sewn balls with hexagon or pentagon shapes appeared.
Fast forward to today and we have something like Mitre’s Hyperseam, which fuses the panels together. They’re no longer regular shapes either. The manufacturers have come up with a weird selection of stitching shapes to, improve the flight of the ball.
Of course, you can still get moulded rubber and synthetic balls. They’re generally cheaper too. They tend to be longer lasting for hard surfaces like cement or tarmac.
Many of the top manufacturers like adidas and Mitre are official match balls of organisations like FIFA, UEFA, the Premier League or the English and Scottish football leagues, and as such they’ve been thoroughly tested and meet their various requirements. However, there is no doubting that some of the so-called lesser sports equipment manufacturers also make outstanding footballs. As a result of this we are seeing more clubs at a amateur and lower pro levels using a wider range of these brands.