Is it really possible to engineer the perfect football?

On 4th December 2009 the new ball for the World Cup in South Africa was unveiled. The product of years of research and development, the ‘Jabulani‘ was the most highly engineered football the world had ever seen. Prior to the launch adidas had even gone to the extent of testing the ball in the Bundesliga, to highlight any potential problems. Yet despite extensive laboratory and field testing the ball has faced heavy criticism from a number of the world’s top players, such as Brazilian goalkeeper Julio Cesar and Italian striker Giampaolo Pazzini. England goalkeeper David James has even been quoted as describing the ball as ‘dreadful’ and ‘horrible’.

So, what has gone wrong, why is the most advanced football to date still facing criticsm from the top players?

It might be possible to partly answer to this question by delving into the history of World Cup footballs.

History of World Cup Footballs

Many people consider the 2002 World Cup in Korea to be the first where a ‘highly engineered’ ball was used. The adidas Fevernova was 100% synthetic and marked the end of the 20 year reign of the classic adidas Tango design. The Fevernova was also arguably the first World Cup ball to face heavy criticism. Many players complained the ball was too light, although David Beckham reportedly loved it. The ball for the 2006 World Cup was the Teamgeist, which was manufactured from 16 thermally bonded panels to produce a more spherical shape in comparison to the classic designs. Again the ball faced heavy criticism, particularly from goalkeepers who complained about its weight and unpredictability in the air. The complaints soon died away however, once the tournament got underway.

Engineering the Jabulani

The Jabulani is the result of years of research and development by adidas in collaboration with Loughborough University. The ball was manufactured from 8 thermally bonded 3D panels with the aim of producing a perfect sphere.

However, in contradiction to what might seem logical, a perfectly smooth sphere will actually result in an unpredictable flight path. Therefore, extensive wind tunnel and trajectory testing was undertaken to determine the required surface finish to produce a ball which would have a predictable flight. The result was a textured surface finish and virtual panels coined ‘aero grooves’, designed to produce turbulent airflow around the ball.

In addition to their in-house testing, adidas had to ensure the ball passed the required tests, such as weight, roundness and rebound, to become FIFA approved. Obviously, passing the FIFA weight test should silence any critics who claim that the ball is either too ‘light’ or too ‘heavy’.

Conclusion

Why are the players still complaining, despite the fact that the ball has been engineered to have predictable bounce and flight characteristics? Maybe the problem is that there is a difference in what is perceived to be the perfect football by the engineers and players. The aim of the engineers is to improve on what has been done before, whilst the players have to adapt to these new ‘improvements’ in time for the tournament. The  solution to the problem may simply be to allow the teams more time to practise with whatever new ball is introduced. However, as history suggests, it is likely that there will always be players who complain regardless of what ball is actually produced.

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