Soccer players from around the world will meet the new Brazuca soccer ball when they step on the pitch this summer for the FIFA World Cup. Adidas created the special six-panel ball for this summers games just as they did for the previous two tournaments in 2010 and 2006. The design has evolved over the years and is now a far cry from what people envision a soccer ball to look like.
The days of the black and white ball composed of 32 leather or synthetic hexagonal and pentagonal panels stitched together by hand are long gone. Teams on all levels can still find the original balls for sale in sporting goods supply stores, however, few will use them beyond practice. Soccer balls of a more modern design are the rage now, and Adidas took it to a whole new level in 2006 when the company introduced the world to Teamgeist for the World Cup that summer. Teamgeist was a ball made up of 14 panels that were glued together instead of hand stitched, making for a smooth ball. Four years later Adidas introduced an eight-panel ball named Jubulani, also glued together. At the 2010 tournament, players criticized the Jubulani ball for being highly unpredictable in flight.
As players realized and complained that the flight of the ball new ball designs were highly unpredictable, Adidas took notice. Research into the soccer balls showed that the original 32-panel balls with the hand stitching were much more predictable in flight. The research showed that the new balls that were not hand stitched and had less panels had more drag. At higher speeds the ball was flying during shots and passes drag increased greatly. This caused the ball to have an unpredictable flight similar to a knuckle ball thrown in baseball. The stitching and multiple panels on the original soccer balls reduced the drag by breaking up the air around the ball allowing for a more predictable flight. Players believed that the newer balls did have a sweet spot. The thought was that if a ball was placed in a specific orientation the player would have a better chance of having it fly through the air the way they wanted. During a free kick or penalty kick, you may notice a player rotated or move the ball a bit, making them believe that they were kicking on that sweet spot.
The ball design from Adidas for this summers World Cup is an attempt to return to the predictability of the hand stitched balls of the past. While the Brazuca is still glued together and is now constructed of only six panels, Adidas has added little nubs all over the ball. The nubs are strategically placed by the company to help reduce the drag of the soccer ball by breaking up the air flow around the ball. This is similar to the stitching and multi-panel design of the older balls. The ball did meet with extensive wind tunnel testing by physicist Sungchan Hong from the University of Tsukuba in Japan. Hong and his colleagues were able to show that the nubs do work and do result in the flight becoming more predictable from any angle.
What the ball does outside of the controlled environment of a wind tunnel is a different story. While the results from wind tunnel testing say one thing, real-world use on the pitch may prove that the little nubs do nothing. Over a game, the nubs on the various balls may wear down some and cause an increase in drag. Hot weather, moisture and repeated strikes of the ball in a game situation will be the true test of Brazuca.
Typically, when the World Cup begins, the first few games will show a number of miss hits of the ball, passes traveling too far or short and wide-open shots nowhere near the goal. Announcers will call it first game jitters by the players, and as the tournament continues, the play will improve. However, it has more to do with the ball than player nerves. The new balls typically do not handle the same as the standard balls the players have been using for years and it can take a game or two for the teams familiarize themselves with the performance characteristics of the new ball designs. Adidas Brazuca design may speed that up for players if the new design holds up to real world use.
When the teams meet Brazuca this summer in the World Cup games, the hope from Adidas is that the ball will be a hit with the players. A successful design could result in a massive rise in soccer ball sales for Adidas. The hope is that every soccer fan and player in the world will want their own Brazuca. If the design is a flop and tournament players complain about the ball, it would be considered a failure for the German shoe manufacturer. The world will find out if the soccer ball is a success in the next couple weeks.
Commentary by Carl Auer