Commentary

Another new World Cup ball means more ballderdash

Here they come, just what we’ve all been waiting for ... the astounding, amazing, unprecedented, truly wondrous details of the new astounding, amazing etc Al Rihla, the new WORLD CUP BALL. The brand new version that adidas has come up with for the 2022 Qatar World Cup.

Well, for a start, that’s highly dismissive of me to say “come up with.” Adidas doesn’t just come up with a new World Cup ball. They conceive, it, they invent it, they design it. And, you can be sure, they fashion it.

This is quite an operation. Because high-level science is involved. I know that because adidas says so. And there is one thing that bringing science into the matter is supposed to ensure: that no one will have the impertinence to question any of the decision-making.

I consider myself a veteran, and therefore something of an expert among those idiots who try to make sense of soccer-ball science. I started to pay serious attention to this area of knowledge back in 2000, when adidas introduced the Terrestra Silverstream to be used in that year’s European Championship.

The science was there — giving us a ball with a liquid gel cushion just under the surface, which (said adidas) allowed the ball to snap back into shape (meaning sphere-shape, presumably) more quickly than any previous ball. Meaning that this ball would behave in “a truer fashion” (said adidas).

While adidas was spreading that good news, England’s goalkeeper David Seaman had let in a goal after making a terrible mess of trying to save a free kick from Portugal’s Luis Figo. “Not his fault,” said coach Kevin Keegan. The ball was to blame, it had moved “all over the place.”

Not what adidas wanted to hear, but things got a lot better for them when an assistant coach for England, Les Reed, sounded off. This ball, asserted Reed, moved quicker through the air and traveled further than other balls: “We’ve seen center-halves send headers huge distances. People are confident of sending passes half the length of the pitch.”

For England, a team devoted to the long ball and to center-halves who dominated in the air, that sounded almost too good to be true. England to win!

England did not win the championship. In fact, losses to Portugal and Romania meant they didn’t even get out of the first round.

Here was proof of what I already suspected. That the claims made by manufacturers for their new, unique balls were largely false. Based on sales talk rather than scientific proof.

Next up, it was Nike, with a new ball for the English Premier League in the 2000-01 season. The Geo Merlin. How could this fail? After all, it came with 32 panels of polyurethane synthetic leather, five layers of casting material and a six-winged carbon-latex bladder. “A good ball for the technical player,” judged Arsene Wenger.

The makers were getting more savvy. Aware that goalkeepers will always complain that a new ball gives them problems, the Nike people were not afraid the dub the Geo Merlin the “goalie killer.” Said the ball’s designer: “I think we’ll see shots from greater distance, more excitement.”

At last, a non-scientific, perfectly understandable statement of what a new ball was supposed to do: create more excitement, with the hint of more scoring.

Surely, nobody would disagree with those aims. Except the routinely unhappy goalkeepers, of course.

The World Cup moved to Japan/South Korea in 2002. With it came the new adidas ball, the Fevernova. The scientific advances kept on advancing. Get a load of this: The Fevernova featured gas-filled micro-balloons under a foam layer, designed to produce a more precise flight.

Jean-Louis Legrand, the adidas Head of Soccer, produced vastly impressive scientific evidence: “We tested the ball with a machine that shot it 1,000 times. Its flight path never varied.”

Wow! Then again, maybe not so wow! after all. Given that the best teams were not likely to employ too much aerial play, preferring to have the ball on the ground, this continued emphasis on the aerial behavior of the ball didn’t make much sense. Neither in practical, nor in scientific terms.

For Euro 2004, adidas announced the Roteiro — “The first-ever ball produced with the innovative thermal-bonding technique.” Not to mention the new Power Balance Technology, which offered a “revolutionary new carcass.” David Beckham said he loved it: “No one has ever seen anything like this before.” Then adding ... Impishly? Spitefully? “Goalkeepers are going to have a very tough time.” But Real Madrid’s Ivan Helguera thought it was awful: “It’s like a beach ball. It’s hard to believe they can call this a ball.”

I spoke to one of the adidas scientists, who told me “it’s about creating more chances. You’ll see more goals, players will want to practice their skills more.”

At last, I find a clear statement that a new ball will bring about more scoring. I’ll be back to that shortly.

If you can stand it, I have more wildly exciting scientific news for you. For the 2006 World Cup, in Germany, the new ball was the Teamgeist. Which, ho hum, featured refinements of the thermal-bonding process, and introduced “a radically new 14-panel configuration,” which was guaranteed to allow players “significant improvements in accuracy and control.” No definition of significant.

Would anyone dare to criticize the Teamgeist, knowing that it had taken adidas “three years of extensive research and development” to produce it? It was “the best-performing ball ever” said adidas.

The intriguing high-tech “robotic leg” had greatly helped the research, able to “repeat an identical kick at the exact same angle and exactly the same speed and power, time and time again.” And reliable robo-leg had shown, proved really, that Teamgeist was 30% more accurate than other balls.

Improving the game? More goals? The Teamgeist was first used in a genuine competitive game of the French Ligue 1. The game finished 0-0.

But the real destruction of all these elaborate claims for the superiority of this or that ball, for the miracles of their technology, came at the 2006 World Cup itself. When the final stats were released, they showed that the tournament had averaged 2.29 goals per game. Not quite the lowest ever — the 1990 World Cup hit the bottom at 2.21 per game — but all that science, all that development, all that touting of the best ball ever, had seen only a constant reduction in goalscoring.

That is worth keeping in mind when you read what adidas has to say about the ball for Qatar 2022, the Al Rihla. I’m going to repeat below, a lot of this hogwash. Much of it will sound familiar because you’ve seen it before, above, in descriptions of previous miracle World Cup balls.

But that’s where we are with commercialized sport. The sales talk simply swamps the genuine soccer stuff.

Just to get things going, it’s worth asking why there is still so much concentration on the flight of the ball. So be prepared for the devastating news that Al Rihla travels faster in the air “than any ball in the tournament’s history.”

Does that matter? Will that make for better soccer? The sales talk shouts (but never actually says) that it will. The history I’ve outlined above says that it won’t.

Take a look.

Al Rihla is the first FIFA World Cup ball to be made using only sustainable water-based inks and glues.

Al Rihla’s distinct, bold colors represent the vibrancy of the host country, and the ever-increasing heights of the competition.

Al Rihla’s new design allows the ball to maintain a significantly higher speed as it journeys through the air.

Adidas has equipped Al Rihla with a special CRT-core, which will provide speed, accuracy, and consistency with maximum shape and air retention during play.

The ball’s textured polyurethane skin, known as Speedshell, takes on a brand-new 20-piece panel shape, to improve flight stability and swerve due to the macro- and microtextures on its surface.

Finally: “This is a stunning, sustainable, and high-quality Official Match Ball from Adidas that will be enjoyed by stars performing at the top of their game on the world’s biggest stage in Qatar, as well as grassroots players everywhere,” remarked Jean-François Pathy, FIFA’s Director of Marketing.

Totally fitting that the last words should come from the marketing department. By now, that should not be a surprise. In 2005, adidas, in its publicity for the Teamgeist, let us know that the ball was expected beat all soccer-ball sales records.

If I’m criticizing adidas and Nike and other ball manufacturers — and I sure as hell am — it is not because they are finding ways of selling more balls, it is because those marketing methods (the heavy-handed over-use of the word “New” is a sure sign the marketeers are at work) repeatedly paint the sport as making great advances because of this science (some of which, I feel, is closer to pseudo-science). When in fact, the evidence for these improvements is almost entirely lacking.

Finally — yes, another Finally, this one a question for the ball manufacturers. Given the enormous amount of concern and research that has been done lately on concussions and head injuries, is it not rather strange that the ball manufacturers have had so little to say on the matter?

Is it possible that their science will not stretch far enough to take in notions of a ball designed to minimize damage? Or is it that the marketeers know when enough is enough, they know that slogans and silliness cannot be used when dealing with a serious medical problem.

10 comments about "Another new World Cup ball means more ballderdash".
  1. Mike Lynch, April 13, 2022 at 6:13 p.m.

    Paul, Good WC ball history, though, I admit I am guilty recalling the joy of playing with the Tango, Azteca, and Entrusco WC balls as these balls were way better than my old Mikasa!


    Interestingly, you failed to mention the new synthetic balls are slightly heavier (when dry).  Sure, in wet conditions, the old leather balls got heavier, but the ball was harder to get up and long in those conditions. I've always wondered if the weight has any clinical correlation to injury potential when improper technique is used. It sure looks that way with all the grimace, turtle technical I see in games. 

  2. Santiago 1314 replied, April 20, 2022 at 7:20 a.m.

    I think I have Lumps on my Head, from Heading those Mikasa Bricks.!!!  (If you ever wonder where some of my Craziness comes from, Blame the Ball.!!!)

  3. frank schoon replied, April 20, 2022 at 10:01 a.m.

    Santi, we were playing with a Mitre multiplex ,it was sewn ball.  Someone blasted it  so hard that it split into two pieces. You can imagine seeing a ball coming at you and all of sudden into two halves....They had to carry half of the guys off the field for laughing....

  4. Santiago 1314 replied, April 22, 2022 at 7:37 a.m.

    Frank, is that the MLS Ball.???.... Those things were like Egg Shells.!!! Splitting and Cracking open All the Time. 

  5. frank schoon replied, April 22, 2022 at 7:45 a.m.

    Santi, those MLS balls are worthless garbage. I wouldn't be surprised if these balls were manufactured at a Russian tank factory....

  6. Kent James, April 13, 2022 at 9:52 p.m.

    PG can always be relied upon to bring a new, critical view of the latest soccer development.  While this tends to be of the "thanks Captain obvious" variety ("wait, marketers exaggerate the advantages of their new products??"), PG does make it interesting.  


    I am certainly a believer that the player is more important than the equipment (and certainly tactics play a much greater role in scoring than the ball does), I have played with enough bad balls to know that there can be a huge difference in balls, and it is a joy to play with a nice one.  Also, credit to the manufacturers who make these things; sewing them together inside out and then turning the rightside out (and then closing them up?).  However they do it, seems like magic to me.  


    While I doubt there is much change in the ball over a year or two, it would be interesting to compare the top of the line balls from 30 yrs ago and today to see what the differences are.  

  7. R2 Dad, April 14, 2022 at 12:16 a.m.

    Wait--so change for the sake of change is bad? I thought everyone liked Progressive values? It sounds like the only ones that are adamant about Progress are the ones making a buck off of it.

  8. frank schoon, April 14, 2022 at 9:36 a.m.

    Finally a good topic by PG to discuss other than injuries and bad ref mistakes....
    I have always favored playing with a REAL soccer ball made out of true LEATHER.  I grew playing with a beautiful brown leather ball. These balls were just gorgeous, the feel, and looks of it. Once I received a letter of acceptance to join the Ajax youth program, my father went out to buy as a present for me an expensive leather ball along with the best soccer shoes at that time. He told me this is for you and take care of it for he wasn't going to run to the store to buy another ball.

    In those days nobody left his 'tools' (ball and shoes) out on the field. They were a special item not to be used on the streets where  over 70% of the pickup soccer was played. In street soccer any ball of any size of any compostion of any weight be it from a tennis ball, plastic ball or any kind of rubber ball was used. But the real soccer ball was used only when playing out on a field or park.
    You took care of the ball, greasing it, taking care of it like expenive Italian dress shoes along with the shoes. The ball and shoes became you or part of you.

    The problem with the  real leather balls was that it would become heavy when it rained. It was not uncommon for a leather ball to break a goal post in a pro game from a hard shot. Therefore often the ball would have a little grease on to keep the water from making it a little heavier...

    The new soccer ball weather-coated took the place of the leather ball which became an anethema to the players who were very technical. On hot and dry days, no rain, the plastic layer on the ball prevents the ball giving it a 'true' feel and roll. Players can fall or trip over the ball because the plastic layer on the ball becomes 'sticky' on dry grass. This is not uncommon, fans often don't realize that but a good player can trip up unexpectedly.

    I think teams should play with TRUE leather balls only and employ balls that are coated for rain or wet weather as back up... Playing with true leather ball is to me the best way of playing and it brings more of the 'real' true technical abilities of the player, without having ball to play tricks in flight; who knows maybe technology in the near future can make balls change directlon somewhat ,angularly speaking, in flight....We should leave the ball alone and make anything looks extraordinary due to the quality skills of the player and not because of technology....

  9. Bob Ashpole, April 14, 2022 at 11:38 p.m.

    Frank, next you will be saying you want real grass instead of plastic! What is the world coming to? :)

  10. George Vecsey, April 18, 2022 at 8:31 a.m.

    Paul:  let us harken back to 2002, when there was some kind of fluttery ball loose in South Korea (and presumably Japan, too). We soccer types like to obsess about such things, so every day Bruce Arena was asked about the newest wonder of the world, and Bruce -- in his Lawn Guyland accent which sounds so familiar to me as a fellow Lawn Guylander -- would reply.
    "It's a BAWL!"

    Presto, my homey had put it in perspective. That's why he's a great coach.
    Keep writing.
    George

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