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Robotic Legs and 50,000 Dimples: The Technology Behind the World Cup Football

Yes, the ball itself. We spoke to the designers about how you can possibly innovate such a fundamental piece of kit.

Images: Adidas

It’s perhaps one of the simplest sporting goods in a long history: a ball. What kind of design work can go into an inflated sphere? A fair bit of geometry, materials design, and some robot legs, apparently.

With ten days to go until kick-off of the 2014 World Cup, I spoke to Matthias Mecking, the director of Adidas’ football hardware unit, to find out more about the science that goes into the single most indispensable object on the pitch. The “Brazuca” was first unveiled in December, and while some players will no doubt try to blame it for dodgy plays at some point or other in the tournament (they always do), there’s over two and a half years of pretty high-tech testing behind the official match ball.

Mecking explained that they took the “Tango” ball used in the Euro 2012 tournament and the “Finale” ball used in the 2013 Champions League as their starting point after consulting with players of all levels about which designs they considered to be the current benchmark.

It’s probably a good thing they didn’t go back to the last World Cup for inspiration, as Adidas’ “Jabulani” ball was pretty heavily criticised, even considering footballers’ not infrequent tendency to blame their tools. For his part, Mecking insisted they were still “very proud” of the Jabulani, which was the “most technically advanced” ball Adidas had ever made at the time.

Still, I asked, how much can you really innovate on something that’s by all accounts a pretty simple piece of kit? “That’s a good question, I’m asking that myself every season,” said Mecking. Being round is not the only limiting factor; the ball also has to adhere to strict FIFA standards that restrict how a ball can be constructed.

FIFA explains its main criterion thusly: “A football must respond in the same way every time it is struck, whether it is in the 90th minute of play or straight from the first kick-off.” So reliability and repeatability, even throughout the abuse of a match, are key.

“The ball is such a sensitive topic, because if you change little things then you might affect bigger things,” said Mecking, but he added that innovations in materials and construction still left plenty of room for development. While the insides of the ball are the same as previous designs, the outer layer of the Brazuca offers some key differences.

First up, it has only six panels—fewer than ever before—and they’re still all the same shape (sort of like a propeller), tessellating into each other. The result is a more homogenous finish. “Therefore, the behaviour is more symmetrical, more accurate, and more consistent," he said.

Having only six panels also makes it more efficient to produce, which in turn leaves less room for mistakes, and leads to greater overall consistency between balls. Then there’s the bumpy finish to the Brazuca, which kind of makes it look like a basketball. The 50,000 raised bumps basically have a non-slip effect that make it more appropriate for kicking—or catching if you’re in goal—in wet conditions.

Then came the testing; the ball was tested in both Adidas and independent labs to ensure it conforms with FIFA standards—think bounce levels, water absorption, weight, pressure, and so on. They gave it to players for feedback, but also did lab-based tests to get more objective, reproducible results.

“We have, for example, a pretty cool device such as our robotic leg, which is a machine that can shoot a ball always in a consistent way,” explained Mecking. “Then we can analyse the flight behaviour; we can analyse the speed of the ball, so whatever subjective comments we get from players we can back up with lab test results.” It's also perhaps a good warm-up for the first kick of the tournament, which is set to be taken by a very different kind of robotic leg.

And of course, because it’s 2014, the ball itself is getting into the technology game with its own Twitter account. I really wanted to hate that as a social media marketing ploy, but in spite of myself I actually find some of the inanimate object’s comments quite hilarious. PR manager Alan McGarrie advised second-screening the game whenever anything important happens: “I’m sure it will have something to say about it.”