Is it the ball? Or is it simply bull?

The German soccer legend Uwe Seeler once told us: "The secret of soccer is the ball."  It’s pretty clear what he meant -- even though I think he got the wrong word. I’m not a believer in a soccer “secret” -- just one? -- that, once discovered, will presumably allow everyone to understand everything about the sport. Seems unlikely.

But Seeler’s statement still stands, because one tends to read it, to understand it, as saying the “key” to soccer. Not a secret then, but a truth -- an often forgotten truth.

Once you start thinking, or rethinking, about the importance of the ball, sooner or later you’re going to take a look at the ball itself -- what it’s made of, how it’s made and so on.

FIFA has rules about this. With the obvious aim of ensuring that the sport, wherever it is played, features a standard ball, Well, at the pro level anyway. Balls must be made of “suitable material.”  Which means synthetic plastics these days. If that sounds rather vague, FIFA gets much more specific about size and weight: circumference between 27 and 28 inches, weight between 14 and 16 oz. 

Then we get a measurement that puzzles -- the one for air pressure inside the ball. The puzzling thing is the huge difference between the lowest allowable pressure, 8.5 lbs per square inch, and the highest, which is almost double at 15.6 lbs psi. Surely, doubling the pressure would cause a noticeable change in the ball’s behavior? No explanation is offered in the rules, so maybe not.

But there has been a regular undercurrent of complaints about how soccer balls perform. Once upon a time, whenever teams from England went to play in South America (and they never fared very well there) the players would return home complaining about a “light” ball. Difficult to control, they said.

Back in the 1950s there might have been some truth in that. That was the era of leather balls. Which absorbed rain water. Which no doubt made them heavier than they should have been. In sunny South America the chances of a rain-soggy ball were much less likely.

But the rules said nothing about rain fall. That particular problem (or maybe it was just an excuse for poor results) disappeared anyway in the 1970s with the coming of the non-absorbent plastics, the “suitable materials.”

Along with the new materials came a new scientific approach to ball-making. Or did it? This new science of ball-engineering was suspect from the start because it was so obviously linked to the now regular introduction of new and -- always -- “improved” balls. The marketing crew had moved in.

That technology has made improvements in the ball cannot be doubted - the advance from a rather lumpy, laced leather ball to today’s seemingly perfect smooth sphere is remarkable. 

But more recent advances -- if that’s what they are -- give off a suspicious whiff of marketing hype. Back in 2000 adidas introduced a new ball for the Euro 2000 tournament. It contained “a liquid gel cushion.” Goalkeepers didn’t like it, claiming it moved so quickly and seemed to dip suddenly.

Two years later, for the 2002 World Cup, adidas introduced the Fevernova ball. No more talk of liquid gel cushions, now it was “gas-filled micro-balloons under a foam layer” that mattered.  “No one likes this new ball, especially not the goalkeepers,” said French defender Mikael Silvestre. 

The adidas ball for Euro 2004 upped the scientific flavor with an “innovative thermal-bonding production technique” along with “new Power Balance Technology.”  The same year, Nike ran into problems in England with a new ball for the Premier League. The impressively named Total 90 Aerow Hi-Vis ball did not impress former England goalkeeper Ray Clemence who claimed “its flight path moves in the last couple of meters.” Which Nike denied.

“A nightmare, an absolute nightmare,” was one goalkeeper’s verdict on the Teamgeist, adidas’s new ball for the 2006 World Cup. The ball had, said adidas, a “revolutionary 14-panel ball construction”, not to mention “a new 1.1 millimeter-thick outer skin, consisting of four layers.”  But the marketing influence was showing now -- “The Teamgeist is widely expected to beat all known sales records,” said an adidas spokesperson. 

The critics were out in force when adidas came up with the Jabulani for the 2010 World Cup. “Terrible,” said Brazilian goalkeeper Julio Cesar, likening the ball to the cheap plastic ones sold in supermarkets. Italian striker Giampaolo Pazzini called it a “disaster”

Further comments -- from the adidas “director of soccer innovation” -- added the marketing angle: "The official match balls are not an easy product. You're trying to create newness in a product.”

For the Brazuca, introduced by adidas for the 2014 World Cup, there was little criticism. Possibly the realization had dawned that all the much derided balls from the past had not really made much difference or caused any calamitous goalkeeper howlers.

But ... while we await a new adidas ball for next year’s tournament in Russia, here comes coach Pep Guardiola hurling a torrent of soccer ball abuse. His problem was that Manchester City played a game in the Carabao Cup -- the less important of England’s two cup competitions -- against second division club Wolverhampton Wanderers. Not an easy game for Man City -- it struggled to a 0-0 tie. But City finally got its expected win in a shootout.

Guardiola quickly let it be known that Man City’s problems had been because of the ball used. A different one from that used in the Premier League. This one is manufactured by Mitre. “It is too light, it moves all over the place, it is not a good ball,” protested Guardiola. “It is impossible to score with a ball like that. It is not a serious ball for a serious competition. It’s for marketing, money, OK, but it’s not acceptable, all the players complain. It has no weight, nothing.”

But how can this be?  The English Football League (organizers of the Carabao Cup) pointed out the Mitre ball is tested in accordance with the FIFA Quality Program and meets the FIFA Quality Pro standard -- “All balls used in the professional game are required to meet this standard”.

Well, balls can vary slightly, within the narrow tolerances allowed by FIFA (apart from the big pressure differences), so it is decidedly puzzling that Guardiola can suddenly encounter a ball that he finds so utterly inadequate.  How can it be “too light,” have “no weight”?  And how come no one else has complained? The EPL calmly pointed out that “The entertainment provided across last night's games would suggest that the ball is not having a negative impact."  (There were five other Carabao Cup games, featuring a total of 18 goals).

It is inconceivable that Guardiola is hallucinating, or inventing the faults he decribes. It seems equally impossible for the Mitre ball not to be meeting the FIFA standards. And it is simply inexplicable that no one else has found that it needs “a miracle” to score with the Mitre ball.

The mystery will continue for a while. Man City, with its shootout win, will be playing in the next round of the Carabao Cup, where the team -- and Guardiola -- will presumably again encounter the dreaded Mitre ball.

23 comments about "Is it the ball? Or is it simply bull?".
  1. Bob Ashpole, October 28, 2017 at 1:07 a.m.

    With all your experience Mr. Gardner, I find it difficult to believe that you don't understand the subtle differences in balls or don't understand how it can impact how a game is played. The difference might be so minute as too make one disbelieve that they actually have any impact, but at the professional level coaches care about every little advantage they can get. Like watering fields, or not, prior to a match and during half time. My belief is that the best players adjust to whatever the conditions are--fast field or slow, grass length, weather conditions, and the ball. I expect pros could play and do well with a tennis ball if they had to. 

    A few brands and models of balls meet FIFA requirements but feel light. Some players don't like the light balls and others don't care. Inflation pressure? I routinely used low pressure balls for juggling and other skill work. They are easier to control.

    For games, my experience is that forwards always want a ball fully inflated as high as the Law allows while keeper want the ball inflated as low as the Law allows. Whatever the reason, the more the ball deforms when struck, the greater the energy it absorbs. Given the same construction, balls inflated higher generally deform less and more energy is transferred to the ball when struck. Given the same construction, the lower the pressure the more the ball deforms. The more the ball deforms, the more surface area contacts between the shoe and the ball so the more controll a player has. I guess you could say softer balls are stickier.

    The one thing that is clear to me is that all match balls must be identical and inflated to the same pressure. Consitency during a match is improtant.

    Do we want to talk about shoe construction next?

  2. R2 Dad replied, October 31, 2017 at 12:51 a.m.

    Is Deflategate next?

  3. feliks fuksman, October 28, 2017 at 5:51 a.m.

    Interesting article and also comments made by Bob Ashpole.  I also agree that different balls make a difference.

  4. Nick Daverese, October 28, 2017 at 6:33 a.m.

    I think not enough thought is put into the ball your playing with. I always thought the first thing you check before the match is the ball. I never used a gauge to mesasure the pressure I did can it push the ball in a half an inch with my thumbs test? if I could not I let some air out. If it went in to much you added air.

    Do that you have less injuries.

    Also we worked on giving the ball eyes? How do you hit the ball to help the ball go where you want it to go. I called  it giving the ball eyes. When you get a ball against a wall you work on putting your skill on the ball. It like the term giving the ball eyes :) when you touch it.

    ii ii think I a lot of the studies that were done about player concussions and brain damaged were done on players who used the old balls that were water logged when it rained in England in the 1950s and not now. Can some one set me straight on that? If I am wrong.

  5. Nick Daverese, October 28, 2017 at 7:21 a.m.

    On shoe construction :)

    the softer the shoe the better. I always had a tough time buying cleats because I had a wide width. The shoes in my local soccer store were only in one widths. Then I found new balance shoes that came in different widths.

    I also used a high top shoe for better support. 

    I went for years playing with a shoe that I could play my two favorite sports our football and American football. You needed a hard toe in American football and a soft toe in our football.

    i also was confused when buying a jock in both sports when I had my own kids. In American you want a hard shell slip in with our football you wanted to play just in a jock for support. So when I had my own kids if found a soft jock with a pad sewn in so they could play both. I bought that in a soccer store that I later owned. That manufacturer of those went out of business so I looked into buying the old company and remanufacturing them under my own name here. I am still working on it. How many parents new to the game buy their male children an American football cup to play our game?

  6. Ben Myers replied, October 30, 2017 at 2:32 p.m.

    FWIW, I have wide feet, too, and Diadoras have long been my choice.

  7. Jay Wall, October 28, 2017 at 9:33 a.m.

    Is it the ball or or the illusion in the mind's eye, how our brain processes what we see. Vision research has concluded bright yellow balls, like the ones found in other sports are easier for the eyes to track in the air. Vision research has also concluded that players can track the spin on a ball with colored laces or markings on it. In vision training players learn to track objects by salient characteristics, what the eyes have learned are important.

    While most coaches in most nations teach players to contact a ball with a limited number or surfaces of the body, players like Cruyff talked about using several dozen surfaces to contact the ball with each foot to make the ball behave differently, the way he wanted it to behave. That a couple dozen surfaces with each foot that affects how the ball behaves. His point is each surface that can be used affects how the ball will behave.

    Then we have other aspects of ball behavior. Altitude, power at impact, angle at impact, etc. There a r a lot of variables, many in and many beyond a player's control. 

    In all invasion sports the single most important factor impacting results of games is not so much the ball, puck, ringette or other object used to score but what all of the player's on the team do when they don't have possession. 

  8. Nick Daverese, October 28, 2017 at 10:21 a.m.

    You should be able to see the spin of the ball as it leaves the passers foot it helps you Bring the ball under control easier. Same is true when you trying to give the ball eyes. Put enough inside spin on the ball as you air it past the keeper so when the ball hits the ground it spins towards inside of the far post. So instead of shooting wide off the far post in moves inside the far post just like the ball had eyes and you score. 

    It like when you pass to a team mate and it goes around the defender after the bounce and goes to your receiver. It is not a skill used much anymore.

  9. frank schoon, October 28, 2017 at 1:43 p.m.

    If you are player who is very tecnical than the type of ball is important for it does make a dfference. The less technical a player the less it effects him. You can say what you want but there better is no better way of playing  than with a pure leather ball. I grew up playing with leather balls in Holland, the problem was when it rained it gained weight. I remember as a kid goals post were sometimes broken after a shot.I don't understand why pure leather balls aren't being used when there is no rain. These plastic coated balls are sticky on dry grass and can cause a player to fall at times, which a leather doesn't do. Playing with leather balls allows one so much more feel and touch with the ball. Similarly, playing on astro turf is so different than playing on grass, the manner of shooting the ball,for example, along with many other technical aspects.
    As far as shoes go, I always prefer to play in soccer shoes that are made in Italy. Italians are the best when it comes clothing and shoes...

  10. Nick Daverese, October 28, 2017 at 3:54 p.m.

    your right Italians are the best making shoes and suits. 

    We played 8 yrs at Brooklyn college on Astro turf. Every opponent hated that field we turned playing on it to a home field advantage. The field was terrible for our football. It had a running track around it. It was a small field don’t play a ball near the tounch line if you did it went off the field. Plus the ball would run off the field. Drainage was terrible on that field. We hardly ever lost a game in that place in the 8 yrs we played in that place.

    our game balls were leather. The practice balls weren’t. The leather ball was different from the ones you probably played with Frank they had no laces.

  11. frank schoon replied, October 28, 2017 at 4:16 p.m.

    Nick, that is so true the leather balls were laced, but they were gorgeous..what a feel to the ball. What I can't understand is that they make leather balls for when it is not raining...those balls today are made for rainy weather not for nice ,dry days...

  12. Wooden Ships replied, October 30, 2017 at 5:19 p.m.

    Frank and Nick, I too use to identify with leather balls, now I identify with fake (synthetic) balls. Sure wish I would have preserved-held on to a couple of the leather ones. Heading wet and cold leather ones seperated the men from the pretenders. The touch/feel on the ball was different. Todays are a mixed bag, so you have to warm-up with them before the game begins. Unlike Nick, I preferred a little more air as a striker. Shoes-boots, mine were Puma and Patricks outdoor, indoor Puma, Diadora and Kelme. Why do we only have one friendly scheduled in this window? Never mind, it's rhetorical. 

  13. Scott Johnson, October 29, 2017 at 1:50 a.m.

    Wrong type of football, I know, but paging Tom Brady...

  14. Ric Fonseca, October 30, 2017 at 11:28 p.m.

    Interesting article, PG must have another slooooow day in footbalandia!  Jeepers, when will it ever end, when will it ever end??? This reminds me of the myriad of footballs (American) are manufactured for high school, college and the nfl, with each having their respective logo/affiliation/association info, and those that have been tested by Brady!  No seriously, one "olf wives tale" that still persists, is the "notion" or "belief" that futbol soccer balones are filled with some gas that will make the ball travel higher, faster and further.  No, really!!!!  Just a few weeks ago, I was minding our small soccer store in South Gate (Offside ProShop) when several young kids, at least mid teenagers, walked in, lookt at our ball display, did the and asked the usual handling and asking if they were "original" (We get a lot of these questions, especially with brand items from jerseys to socks to balls and shoes) when one of the boys asked how much helium we pimped into the ball...?!?!? Imagine my consternation on hearing the question and my amazement when I retorted that, that is one question I used to hear when I refereed, coached, and attended unaffiliated youth and adult games!  When I told them that was just plain "an old wifes tale..." one asked what an old wifes tale was/is.  Anyhow, we had a good laugh but it turned serious when I told them that was just part of the folklore - or should it be futbol-lore, surrounding our sport.  The guys got a good laugh, but were more wiser, yet the questioner wasn't convinved and said he'd need to ask his father and coach.  Imagine it?  Yes?  No?  Well then PLAY ON!!!   

  15. Ric Fonseca, October 31, 2017 at 2:48 a.m.

    oooops, not "pimped..." but pumped!!!  Ho boy, LMAOF!!!

  16. Steve Greene, October 31, 2017 at 8:42 a.m.

    To clarify, the LOTG set the pressure at such a wide range as each style/brand/model ball is different and is clearly stamped on the ball itself.  IFAB takes the approved balls high and low range and thats what is in the laws.  I have never seen one specific ball/brand/style that varies the entire range as Mr. Gardner suggests.

  17. uffe gustafsson, October 31, 2017 at 5:46 p.m.

    I would like to hear from you all on ball pressure.
    girls have a much higher percentage of concussions and I personally think it’s because refs like rock hard balls, every time when refs check the balls (not using a pressure gage) they want them pumped up more and I respond the girls don’t like those hard balls.
    on our team a third have had concussions mostly from heading balls or hit by a ball.
    i wish somebody would study the effects of high pressure vs lower pressure balls to see if it makes a difference.

  18. Bob Ashpole replied, October 31, 2017 at 8:39 p.m.

    Uffe, I think you would be further ahead to address technique and decision making. For punts and goal kicks on the volley, I suggest glancing headers or using a different body part.

    I used to head punts and goal kicks in long clearances back up the field when I first played, but as I got older I realized it was too much stress. My contacts would vibrate from the impact and blur my vision. I figure my brain was shaking too like the contacts.

    After the first time, I never tried heading to clear soaked leather balls. Anyone who had done it knows what I am talking about. The experience was literally stunning.

  19. Nick Daverese, November 2, 2017 at 2:14 p.m.

    Uffe is you think the officials actually like a rock hard ball. You have a duty as their coach to argue the point with the official. You there to teach them the game and to keep them from getting hurt by not heading a hard ball. 

    If an official did that with me I have coached only boys and men. I would not let him get away with that.

  20. Ric Fonseca, November 2, 2017 at 5:46 p.m.

    Holy smokes, Batman, when I refereed, I never said I preferred a harder playing ball!!! Where tdid this notion come from? Now about girls suffering from a higher incidence of concussions, what about the other physical injury that says girls/women suffer a greater/higher incidence of knee injuries, e.g. torn acl, later/colateral knee injuries?  The only times I required a ball be pumped was when I first c hecked the field and saw the game balls, and if under inflated, then I got my trust pump and did it myself or had the coach or team manager do it and I then again checked it, but not with a guage, but the old true and "trusted" manner, mannually squeezed the ball,  bounced a couple of time and even headed it and then it was OK and PLAY ON!

  21. uffe gustafsson, November 2, 2017 at 6:17 p.m.

    Think you all read the ball pressure wildly different and I looked it up some time ago.
    my point that you missed I think is girls don’t like balls that are pumped up to much, what I’m trying to say is I think girls should play with balls that are less inflated. I bet less concussion would occur.
    and rick yes ACL are also a problem.
    but if we don’t address these problems they won’t go away. These are 17 year old girls and they know how to head balls but as in any situations things don’t always go the way you like.

  22. Nick Daverese, November 4, 2017 at 4:34 a.m.

    Girls in general can’t head the ball as well as guys. Why because Parents worry to much about their girl children. There was a guy HS coach of a girls HS team that was on the coaches list. A parents of a girl on his team asked him if a parent came to him as asked him not to have her head the ball he would say yes no problem. She does not have to head the ball.

    then he gets a coaching job at a girls college team. And what does this coach do he tried to get girls who can head the ball. I stoped reading his posts because of that. 

    I never coached women but I did do skill training for my daughters HS team. They got so good at skil work that the boys team came to me and asked me to do skil training with them. 

    My daughter played for her college football with Columbia university. And she played in Germany when she moved their after college for a while. Her son my grand son now is playing for a club team in Berlin now he is 8 years old. He comes here for a visit I saw he has a live foot. The ball jumps off his foot when he shoots. Plus he can head the ball well. They encourage heading there unlike here.

  23. Nick Daverese, November 4, 2017 at 4:51 a.m.

    On Acl 

    With regard to hereditary factors, they do seem to exist, even if theymight more properly fall into the "physical make-up as a result ofheredity" category. The key seems to be the ability to hyper-extend joints. This would also explain why girls are more prone than guys, as they aremore often able to hyper-extend joints. The knee test is simple: sit on thefloor with your leg straight, and pull up on your foot. If you can liftyour foot off the floor WITH the back of your knee still touching theground, you've reached hyper-extension. This is good if you're a swimmer, but not good if you want to play soccer and avoid knee surgery. People whocan hyper-extend their joints  must pay special attention to quad-hamstringstrengthening exercises, as well as abductor-adductor exercises for lateralstability. Get 'em in the weight room, keeping weights low and repetitionshigh if they're younger. Also, don't neglect training like jogging andstep-climbing: some research has shown that low-level impact training canstrengthen connective tissues like tendons and ligaments. Coaches should also emphasize the importance of trying to maintain a slightbent-knee position through most pivots and twists, as well as duringcontact. It's almost impossible to tear an ACL while your knee is bent, even if it's ever so slightly. A straight leg (or worse, hyper-extended) isthe surest way to an ACL tear. 

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