Why the World Cup ball matters

World Cup 74

Every four years, a new football is presented at the World Cup. This has occurred since 1970, when sports manufacturer Adidas introduced the first official World Cup ball in Mexico, the Telstar. Numerous ball designs have followed, helping take the game in new directions and inspiring the goal scorers who have mastered them.

 

Telstar_Adidas

 

1.

Diego Maradona walked shirtless through his team’s locker room, his eyes wide and his chest puffed out.

Argentina had just defeated its nemesis England in the 1986 soccer World Cup semi-final and the jubilant, almost defiant Maradona, clenched his fist as he circulated. He was god-like, a man who could part a sea of observers into adorers and loathers. But here, amid his footballing brethren, he was at ease. As he strutted across the room, he absorbed their admiration and you might have forgiven him for a little hubris.

Outside the team’s intimate refuge, the crowd packed into Mexico’s colossal Estadio Azteca danced and cheered, though some howled disapprovingly at Argentina’s 2-1 victory. This might be expected because with one fell swoop, Maradona’s surgical run through the heart of the English team, had mercilessly extinguished his opponent’s hopes and sealed the fate of his own legend.

It was a moment of sheer inspiration, to be talked about for years to come and recalled whenever a goal of similar ingenuity was summoned. The impossible starting point beyond the halfway line; the initial pirouette that fooled England’s midfield; and the unrelenting charge, which surely filled his mind now, flashing each time he shook a congratulatory hand.

His teammates chanted and he turned from his thoughts to join in. “Argentina es el campeon,”, they sang, with hands flailing and towels waving. Maradona bobbed, bouncing on his knees and dipping his head in time. He raised his towel, stretched it out behind himself and waved it as a fan might in the stands. The other men, many of them half-naked, clapped along.

Amid the settling dust and drying sweat had come extraordinary emotion: Argentina not only tasted victory but now savoured one of the greatest goals ever scored. Most athletes understand the rarity of such occasions — dreamlike moments, when the strain of hard work is briefly rewarded and weighty expectations are finally exhausted.

Even on scratchy video many years later, the goal hasn’t lost any lustre. It plays out like a symphony, an ebbing and flowing masterpiece delivered with exactness and exuberance.

Argentina was ahead 1-0 at the time, after a controversial goal scored with Maradona’s hand, an incident that would later be known as ‘the hand of God‘ goal. As if Maradona understood the infamy of that play, he took it upon himself early in the second half to issue a more emphatic statement, to quash any doubts about his genius, and perhaps make amends.

It unfolded quickly. Facing inward, Maradona spun away from two English defenders. They trailed hopelessly as he bolted for the penalty box, the ball yo-yo-ing from his boot laces as he moved at full tilt. He then split two backs, before passing by the goalkeeper and finally slotted the ball into the right side of the goal. There was no disputing the nature of the transaction. It was breathtaking and instantly historic.

The ball dispatched by English goalkeeper Peter Shilton twice that day was also noteworthy: it was the first synthetic ball used at a World Cup, designed by German sporting apparel company Adidas and known as the Azteca.

And this is where our story really begins.

 

2.

Adidas has provided match balls for all the big soccer tournaments since the 1970s but it wasn’t until ’86 that the company’s influence in the sport became more apparent.

The idea behind the Azteca was that its completely synthetic exterior would prevent the ball from logging with water, previously an issue at major tournaments and one that slowed play at the ‘82 Cup in Spain. The model in that competition, the Tango Espana, was leather with rubber seams designed to hold out moisture. The seams didn’t always work however.

So Adidas abandoned leather panels for the Azteca to make a more resilient product, but in doing so, set the impetus for the perpetual redesign of the international soccer ball.

‘So what?’ you might ask. Well consider this: soon new materials would be tested and introduced; size and weight standards would be revised; the game itself would change.

The end goal became less about a definitive product and more about revision, undoubtedly driven by the enduring German desire for efficiency. And the timing couldn’t have been better. Adidas’ innovation team had apparently realised its potential in a fairly unsophisticated market, and thus with each passing tournament addressed not only the ball’s make-up, but its ongoing contribution to the sport’s culture.

Such impact cannot be underestimated. If a game or even a whole tournament ever failed to win hearts and minds, one of the best ways to combat such shortcomings was with the ball. Adidas came to know this, and in a sense, so did international soccer’s powerbrokers. When they were short on magicians like Diego Maradona, they could turn their attention to technology and science.

The pursuit was not made on a whim however. Adidas had been in the business of competitive advantage since the late 1940s, when one of its founding brothers left to create a rival brand eventually known as Puma. The stars, or perhaps more accurately, the stripes, had aligned for Adidas.

The Federation Internationale de Football Association’s (FIFA) blessing came as early as 1970, and the nexus of the company’s revisionist attitude would arrive at the high point of technological innovation — the 1980s. At a time when the world was consumed by Sony’s Walkman music player, digital watches, movies on video cassettes, Nintendo’s gaming console and Apple’s home computers, Adidas clearly sought a piece of the pop culture pie and with FIFA’s support, had little reason to settle on a single ball design.

In many ways the soccer world is better for it. The FIFA-Adidas cooperation — in its fifth decade officially now — has prompted design collaborations that are considered benchmarks by players and coaches alike. Many of them are splendid looking balls and of the highest quality. The black and white panelled Telstar instantly springs to mind.

And yet, when the Azteca landed there was a seismic shift that would change the sport. As fans, we perhaps never noticed, too mesmerised by Maradona’s artistry to worry about the ball.

 

3.

Consider that Maradona’s goal was a dribbling move, not an airborne delivery as many of history’s best goals are. He travelled 50 yards with the ball before scoring and that continues to stun more than 30 years later. Not many people have concocted a goal close to rivalling it. This may have something to do with the way scoring more often occurs through the air in the modern era, than it did previously.

Certainly many goals subsequent to 1986 would be greatly affected by lighter, smoother and less predictable balls, in which the scorer benefited from the equipment as much as his own faculty. Such players would typically lift and bend their shots to beat the keeper, and as we’ve seen for many years now, professional players today do this as a matter of routine.

To be fair, I don’t think enhanced soccer balls should undermine every spectacularly curled delivery. But there’s a definite impact and we need to consider the technology in context. Just as grass or clay courts influence tennis matches, and swinging aluminum and maple bats have differing results in baseball, soccer balls of varying materials and textures play to the strengths of different goal scorers.

Yes, Maradona could have probably scored his most famous goal with a volleyball. However, I’d argue that many other strikers couldn’t have executed their best efforts with anything but a modernised, aerodynamically tweaked version of the ball. For these players, the prospect of  greater velocity or spin had to be tantalising.

So Adidas kept working at it. After Mexico, the company wanted its next World Cup ball, the Etrusco Unico, to be even better. It bore an elegant Etruscan lion head design on its 20 panels — for the Italian based tournament, of course — and was also manufactured entirely from synthetic fibres. Among these were neoprene, added to make it watertight, and polyurethane, used to improve its bounce. All this did nothing to improve the competition however, as the ’90 Cup yielded the fewest goals of any World Cup ever, at just over two per game.

Still, it was widely accepted that the defensive nature of contests and ugly challenges that drew 16 red cards overall were mostly to blame. Slowdown tactics were also employed by defenders and, as such, it would be the last World Cup without the back pass rule, a change brought in to prevent goalkeepers from handling direct passes from teammates.

The tournament was a ratings success in spite of its challenges, so as you might expect, Adidas’ innovation program rolled on with 1994 in its sights.

 

Questra

 

4.

If the initial brief was to prevent water logging, why did Adidas step into the world of aerodynamics with future soccer balls?

Well, the company’s brainstorm ahead of North America’s only World Cup was a seminal moment that would transform the game’s landscape forever. The ball, if you unequivocally believe press releases, would become rounder.

After the defensive struggles of Italy, FIFA worried that the next Cup tournament would underwhelm a restless American public groomed on the blitzkrieg of the NFL and aerial exploits of the NBA’s human F-18s. It sought a remedy before unleashing its next marquee event to potentially the largest audience it had ever seen.

Adidas’ Questra swooped into the Pontiac Silverdome in Detroit on June 18, 1994, to the applause of 73,425 fans.

This version offered a blend of five synthetic materials and polystyrene foam shell, a 14-panel exterior down from the regular 32, and triad imprint for historical distinction.

Team USA played Switzerland and the ball was indeed faster and more responsive, and therefore proved easier for strikers to steer beyond goalies. I submit Eric Wynalda’s bowing 30-yarder for the United States as evidence. That day delivered a 1-1 draw, though ensuing contests saw multiple two, three, four, and five goal games. Mission accomplished—maybe—depending on whether you’re a TV mogul, a soccer diehard, or product draftsman in the bowels of Three Stripe HQ. In short, that ball’s wonderfully curved panels and watertight joints ignited the movement to out-round the roundest.

More rocketeers followed. David Beckham’s bending belters might be further proof that some of soccer’s greatest goals were conceived in line with ball development. There’s little doubt that England’s former captain became one of the sport’s most thrilling free-kick takers in history because he learned to manipulate the lighter and smoother ball of the contemporary era. This isn’t to say he couldn’t have done so had he played with Adidas’ 1962 Santiago, with its heavier brown leather octagon panels. But the manner in which he kicked just so happened to combine beautifully with a ball readied for spinning and turning.

Beckham played to his advantage. He arrived on the professional stage after the Azteca, the Etrusco and the Questra, which meant he was gifted faster moving balls well-suited to his technique. The new models could do strange things and that’s why, I believe, many free-kick specialists like Beckham enjoyed using them.

Eight years after the American tournament, Adidas’ introduced the Fevernova soccer ball as the official model of the 2002 World Cup, staged in both Korea and Japan. What stood out about the Fevernova was that it was the first ball after 1978 to move away from the basic core of the late seventies designs. It seems incredible now that this model had 11 layers, including tiny gas-filled balloons embedded in a syntactic foam, an outer cover made of a combination of polystyrenes and natural rubber, and an inner lining of a tightly woven raschel fabric. In total, its skin was three millimeters thick and said to increase the ball’s rebound characteristics, which in turn helped accelerate it when struck just so. This is where science truly came to the fore.

Adidas said the ball’s surface could convert applied energy evenly at every point, providing a more predictable flight path once set in motion. That the ball was slightly smaller and heavier than the average model at 435 grams, should not be overlooked. If a player hit its smaller sweet spot, the force would generate speeds of around 80 miles per hour, Adidas said. This was said to be 10 per cent faster than the 1998 World Cup ball, the Tricolore.

It also appealed to many strikers, particularly those that sought a little extra pace on their free-kicks, Beckham among them. The iconic midfielder, who actually helped design the ball, said it had exceptional accuracy. Other stars weren’t so impressed however, including Italy’s legendary goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, who called it a bouncing ball for kids. One might argue that all goal keepers complain about new balls, but perhaps goalies are in the best position to pass judgement.

Around the same time, sports company Spalding released a ball it also claimed to be close to perfectly round. The company softened the product’s skin which allowed it to piece together its hexagon exterior with machines, not by hand like most traditional models. Spalding’s people argued that the machine stitching made the ball’s symmetry more precise. Apparently a number of sports businesses were on the same track. In fact, there are more soccer ball brands than you may realise.

Supposedly 90 manufacturers are registered FIFA licensees but blue-chip names like Adidas, Nike, Umbro and Puma are the dominant players in ball design, with Adidas headlining that group. Its soccer ball expertise swelled under founder, Adolf Dassler, who oversaw production of the iconic Telstar in the 1960s. The black and white pentagon-on-hexagon model quickly became synonymous with the sport, while also bringing clarity to fans at home in front of colorless TV screens. Goals went up in the 1970 Mexico World Cup and ratings soared, largely because of the way Telstar looked on screen.

Adidas was among the sport’s twentieth century heroes, it seemed, and was perhaps destined to lead the market after that effort.

 

grass sport game match
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

 

5.

Adolf’s son, Horst, assumed control after his father’s passing in 1978, and subsequently hatched the licensing and marketing firm International Sports and Leisure (ISL). According to Barbara Smit in her account of Adidas’ multigenerational family feud, ‘Sneaker Wars’, Horst was a supremely ambitious man, unwilling to wait his turn as the boss. His view was that sports and marketing were collusive. As Joe Nocera of The New York Times wrote in 2008: “Horst turned his corner of the company into a kind of secret empire that acted against the express wishes of his parents. He started shadow companies to hide certain product lines from them. He befriended all the top officials in sports, including those in charge of the Olympics.”

Horst died in 1987 due to illness, but his business partnerships of the seventies and early eighties are still relevant today, and more importantly, to the story of the international soccer ball.

To its credit, Adidas maintained its standing as a trusted brand and never plays down its close relationship with FIFA. The company told The Associated Press in 2011 that it enjoys a long-term alliance with the Association as both a sponsor and supplier for their events at all levels of the game. So as you might expect, the firms have extended their strategic partnership until 2030.

Despite this lengthy partnership, the chase for perfection is a fairly recent one. I mean before Charles Goodyear invented vulcanized rubber, soccer balls were lined with pig bladders of all things. The movement of such balls was unpredictable, and varied depending on the irregularity of the bladder’s shape. In some ways, this was as innocent as soccer ever was — a game determined simply by one’s ability to conquer an imperfect leather sphere with the feet.

But innocence vanished when Mick Jagger first strutted across the stage: The Rolling Stones released their own change of pace in 1966 with ‘Paint it Black’, while British manufacturer, Slazenger, launched its first World Cup ball, which they’d earned the right to do by winning an anonymous contest. It was an unimposing orange mass that looked more like a volleyball than a soccer ball, boasting 24 panels, and no synthetics. The theory was that the more pieces it was divide it into, the less chance the leather had of warping. If you’ve ever seen a grainy highlight reel from the ’66 tournament, you will have noted the ball travels like moss-covered stone—some might say, as a soccer ball was meant to. England celebrated their one and only World Cup victory that year.

That was then.

It should come as no surprise then that Adidas’ Teamgeist at the 2006 World Cup was made with Beckham, and others of his ilk in mind. It had 14 synthetic panels and no internal stitching, so it was effectively smoother and rounder. And presumably travelled faster. With a tremendous thrust, Germany’s Torsten Frings struck the Teamgeist in the opening game of the tournament, and the output of its design was evident. The ball punctured the air and everything around fell silent. It soared upward, scuffed the lower atmosphere, then dipped, levelled, and rattled toward its target. The shot was a heat-seeking missile. As it finally veered right, fiendishly out of reach of the keeper, one imagined an eye-patched villain armed with a remote control behind its movement. It was one of the best goals in recent tournament history, and according to Adidas, the ball that slammed into the net that day also boasted the best design ever — to that point.

 

6.

When I think of Nike soccer balls generally, I think of Paul Scholes. The former Manchester United midfielder volleyed the Nike Total 90 Aerow II from about 25 yards against Aston Villa in 2006, in one of the most daring and brilliant goals in recent memory.

Standing well outside the penalty box, Scholes seemed an unlikely scorer at the time because teammate Ryan Giggs had whipped the ball into the box with the intent of meeting the forehead of one his strikers. Scholes was too far away to even be a factor in the play, which is why none of Villa’s defenders noticed him. But as the ball was parried out by a Villa defender he suddenly appeared on the scene. It flew up and then dropped within range of his swinging right boot, which smacked the ball so cleanly that it screamed back toward goal at a surprising pace. It arced upward briefly before dipping, knuckling at the last second to clear the crossbar. Even commentator Martin Tyler was caught off guard, searching for the right words as the ball bounced around in the back of the goal.

On the video you hear him eventually interject over the noise of the crowd with, “Paul Scholes, with the most brilliant goal!” In the volley category, at that range, you would indeed be hard pressed to find a more riveting strike. One wonders how much of a role the Aerow played in the goal though, and the many others you see like it across the English Premier League today.

To be sure, the Total 90 Aerow II had 32 panels for truer and more accurate flight, Nike said. A hand-stitched polyurethane case enhanced its aerodynamics and ability to precisely shape shots and passes, or so the spec sheet claimed.

Though Adidas would certainly have been eager to challenge Nike’s ‘most accurate’ claim.

 

7.

For the 2012 European Championships, Adidas brought back the Tango, a popular ball from the 1978 World Cup. It wasn’t the Carter-era Tango though — the new version spun its way through two years of machine tests and compression chambers as part of the FIFA Quality Concept for Footballs program, before rubbing up against the grass.

That’s a routine birth for soccer balls these days. London’s 2012 Olympics saw the debut of another ball, the Albert, affectionately named after the city’s venerable Albert Hall where Hendrix and Zeppelin and Clapton once belted through sets. The moniker was conjured after a ball-naming competition invited the public to christen the shiny newborn in early 2011, which saw 12,000 unique names submitted in just 10 days.

Adidas found some success with the new Tango and Albert which it greatly needed after wide criticism for the Jabulani. This model perhaps drew more headlines than any other in history and not for the right reasons. It may, in fact, best represent over-engineering in soccer ball design and was highly scrutinised by players and media alike at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

The Jabulani, which means ‘celebrate’ in Zulu, is worth further examination.

Renowned for dipping on unsuspecting goalkeepers, the ball was thermally bonded together with just eight panels, six fewer than the Questra, and 24 fewer than the old school 32. Such was the criticism of the ball that scientists around the world were compelled to test it — presumably by whipping Beckham-style crosses at each other while wearing white lab coats — and concluded its fewer panels, internal stitching and ultra-light weight produced a puzzling result. As we’ve noted along this journey, imperfection is important.

Assistant professor of aeronautics at the California Institute of Technology Beverly McKeon pointed this out in her 2011 study, because without it a ball can behave unexpectedly. “It’s like putting the brakes on, but putting them on unevenly,” McKeon explained to observers at an on-campus demonstration.

McKeon told the university’s Engineering and Science magazine that there are two ways in which air can flow over pretty much any surface, including a soccer ball. Firstly, it can move in a laminar flow, where particles slide over one another and the ball in smooth parallel layers. Or secondly, particles can tumble about erratically in several directions in a turbulent manner. “I’m sure laminar flows tend to be slower, and they do best when traveling over smooth surfaces, whereas turbulence comes from rougher surfaces and higher flow speeds,” she said.

Simply, a smoother ball like the Jabulani causes a turbulent movement of air due to its larger span of unbroken surface area. This slows the ball down and shifts its flight path in an unexpected way. Most of soccer’s artisans throughout history mastered a ball that was less round and smooth than the Jabulani, or the Questra for that matter, and so you might argue their goals were scored despite a handicap, of sorts.

NASA scientists at the Fluid Mechanics Laboratory at Ames Research Center, in Moffett Field, California, also tested the performance of the Jabulani and compared it to 2006 designs. NASA’s people quickly saw a knuckle-ball effect, as you would in baseball when the pitcher delivers a hard fast ball without any rotation. The NASA testers, like McKeon, explained that when a relatively smooth ball with seams flies through the air without much spin, the air close to the surface is affected by an asymmetric flow. This asymmetry creates sideway forces that can suddenly push the ball in one direction and cause volatile swerves and swoops. One of NASA’s scientists, Rabi Mehta, said the Jabulani tended to knuckle at 45 to 50 miles per hour, similar to the speed of the ball during a free-kick.

Players prior to the Cup and during the tournament in South Africa all drew similar conclusions: that the Jabulani ball moved too much in the air. Whether Adidas and other ball makers actually look for these types of occurrences in a game is debatable. They certainly aim to increase the amount of goals scored.

However, lab tests and simulations will never completely replicate real life action, where the natural elements, the varied makes of leather and synthetic boots worn by players, and the different playing surfaces around the world, all undeniably shift results. It’s an ongoing challenge, to be sure.

the-ball-stadion-horn-corner-47343.jpeg
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

 

8.

We started with Maradona because I regard him as the purest goal scorer ever. For all his misgivings and oddities, has there been a more naturally gifted attacking player?

When I think of soccer’s best goals, regardless of the type of ball used, his are always at the top of the list. This counts for something.

For some time now I’ve contemplated the anatomy of spellbinding goals — the ones that adhere to the mind like the treasured pieces of a scrapbook. I mentally splice these clips, Frings’ among them, like a crusty old head coach trying to deduce their inner workings. Why do they hold in my cerebrum like the colors of a Van Gogh painting, or Beatles lyrics? What makes them memorable?

I am not entirely sure of the answer. Great goals come from a place of instinct and pure endeavour. Indeed, a memorable goal — or a “brilliant” one, as Martin Tyler, would say — is also born of circumstance. The context of Maradona’s bolt through England, for example, was underscored by not only the ongoing rivalry between the two nations, but the contrast in their footballing styles — the calcified English muscle, stern on challenges and forceful on the dribble, versus the liquid and efficacious Argentinians, threading and weaving moves into a mesmerizing tapestry.

Any goal of brilliance must also live in the paradigm of creativity, because the scorer is required to disrupt the flow or pattern of the game in order to produce it. In some cases, he will even defy the laws of trigonometry, gravity, and logic. Consider Pele’s many and varied circus acts of the late fifties, during which time, any level of soccering magic and voodoo could have headlined at Vegas on account of its obscurity. Eventually, of course, Pele’s trickery adorned Broadway for the New York Cosmos, and in that context, the sophistication of his game was beyond creative: it was genius.

His most beautiful effort, the stupefying and iconic manipulation of the ball against Juventus in 1959, was perhaps the closest he drew to virtuosity. It was complex and rare. But would a different ball yield a different result? Maybe.

At the University of Technology in Sydney some years ago, I saw a young right-side midfielder execute a goal that might help conclude our study. Firstly, the college’s home pitch presented its own challenges. It took reams of wizardry to navigate that park, in fact, with its thick grass that could strangle a ball like the tentacles of a giant octopus. Deep passes along the edge had little chance of survival, especially in the wet, where the ball might sink or suddenly skid. Intuition and anticipation were imperative.

On this day, the ball ricocheted around the midfield like a pinball, lost among bruised and bleeding legs. Once in a while, a shot whipped by the goal posts, like a Formula One car occasionally passing by the starting pole. With the clouds darkening above and an icy wind pinching at those left in the bleachers, the young man drifted infield, an initiative that usually leaves the wing vulnerable, but can also urge a result.

A centered pass floated toward him and he caught the ball in the pit of his chest, instantly killing its spiral. It sat there for a millisecond before dropping waste high, where he juggled it with a raised thigh. He turned his back to the sideline, pivoted and parried the ball up again before striking it, all in a single movement. The opposition froze. Such mastery, after all, can turn players into spectators on account of its irregularity. The Costa Ricans learned this when Frings found space about 25 yards from goal that sunny June afternoon in 2006.

It was dynamic and instantaneous, and perhaps inspired by Paul Gascoigne’s Euro ’96 composition, in which he casually chipped the last defender before shooting; or maybe it was more reminiscent of the exquisite and perfect volley by French maestro Zinedine Zidane in the Champions League Final of 2001.

At any rate, the player had rocketed it beyond the last man. By the time the stunned goalie had scooped up the shrapnel from the strike, the clouds were ready to empty and boots had become cold and heavy.

For a minute afterward, players and spectators revelled in the moment, a splendid culmination of thoughts and things before it, as every new piece of art is.

 

By J.P. Pelosi

 

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