The almost lost art at the heart of the beautiful game, uncovered by Derek Workman.
Kamal Boukentar spends his days hand-sewing footballs, sitting on a rush-seated chair outside his wardrobe-size workshop, La Clinique du Ballon, deep in the souks of Marrakech Medina. He painstakingly sews small panels of leather together with an exactness of stitch that makes you think it has been sewn by machine. Occasionally he stops to spray the seam he is working on with water, to soften the leather and make it easier to sew. He is the only handmade leather football-maker in Morocco, and, quite possibly, one of only a handful left in Africa and Europe.
When we first meet, Kamal is working on a model from the 1930s with 18 panels. On a shelf in the shop window is the ultimate in the fine art of football making, a ball of 72 pieces, probably one of only two in the world, one made by Kamal, the other laboriously sewn by his father 40 years earlier.
”Mohamed Boukentar, my father, started the shop in 1965, and was one of about 20 makers in the Medina at the time. During the 1970s my mother, Lalla Aicha, worked with him, and is the only woman ever to have hand-sewn leather footballs in Morocco. I began in 1984, when I was 12, and it took me a week to make my first football. He points to the ball in the window. I can make an 18-piece football in one day, but that one took me 10 days of solid work. It’s purely for display, to show just how intricate a ball can be, and there is no price in the world that would get me to part with it.”
Most people probably just assume that a football is made from a basic design, which is exactly what I thought – which goes to show how most people, including me, are completely wrong. Most modern footballs are made up of 32 panels, but an original can be made up of 10 different numbers of pieces from four to 34, and each of those will have three or four different designs, around 30 different patterns in all.
As the ball comes together like a complicated inside-out puzzle, Kamal inserts the rubber bladder that inflates the finished ball. Fortunately, he doesnt go as far as using a pig’s bladder as they would in the early days of the game. In its natural state, the leather is pale beige, but after three carefully rubbed-on coats of olive oil, it attains the rich brown colour and muted sheen of memories of games played by men with short haircuts and knee-length baggy shorts, who didn’t feel the need to kiss and cuddle each other whenever a goal was scored.
Despite being a sporting work of art, Kamal’s footballs are never likely to see a pitch. ”Most people buy them for decoration or as gifts. But I like it when an older man buys one because it reminds him of when he played football as a boy. I’ve got an original pair of 1930s boots on display and sometimes people tell me what it was like playing in them. Heavy and uncomfortable, by the sound of it!”