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World Cup Kicks Off With Rounder, High-Tech Ball

James Owen
for National Geographic News
June 9, 2006
 
A revolutionary and controversial new soccer ball grabs the spotlight
today as the 2006 World Cup kicks off in Germany.

Named +Teamgeist, German for "team spirit," the soccer ball features a radical new design that sports just 14 panels—the first departure from the iconic 32-panel ball that's been used in the World Cup for the past 36 years.

Adidas, the new ball's designer, touts it as the most technologically advanced—and roundest—soccer ball ever made.

Tournament officials say the ball will lead to more goals, providing extra excitement for the World Cup's billions of spectators (read famous fans' musing on soccer in National Geographic magazine).

Some star players have endorsed the new design, including England's captain, David Beckham, known for his trademark swerving shots when shooting a goal.

"It goes where you want it to go, and that's important," the Adidas-sponsored player said in a press release.

But some players and sports scientists aren't so sure about how the new ball is going to perform.

Critics say the ball is too light and aerodynamic, and it may behave unpredictably and create problems for goalkeepers.

Goalkeeper Concerns

The most common soccer ball design—originated by an Adidas model called Telstar—was introduced at the 1970 World Cup in Mexico. It is made up of 20 white hexagons and 12 black pentagons stitched together into a sphere.

As well as using fewer panels, Adidas dispensed with any stitching for +Teamgeist, instead using a heating and gluing process to create a watertight seal.

The manufacturer says this new feature gives the ball the same feel whatever the playing conditions, rain or shine.

Adidas says +Teamgeist is up to three times more accurate than previous soccer balls and that the ball's qualities remain identical with every shot.

The Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), the organizers of the World Cup, says the polymer-coated ball offers significant improvements to players.

+Teamgeist's smooth surface and perfectly spherical shape ensure consistent and reliable movement through the air, FIFA says.

FIFA notes that the new ball had to pass a series of stringent laboratory tests before being selected for the 2006 World Cup.

But goalkeepers, who are charged with keeping the ball out of their net, are not so complimentary about +Teamgeist's design.

Speaking at a news conference on Tuesday, an England goalkeeper, Paul Robinson, said, "There's a lot of difference—it's very goalkeeper unfriendly. It's very light and moves a lot in the air."

He might have a point.

Ken Bray of the Sport and Exercise Science Group at the University of Bath in England is the author of How to Score: Science and the Beautiful Game. He says there may be occasions when the new ball behaves unpredictably.

"Every World Cup we get goalkeepers who say this particular ball moves in a peculiar way," he said.

"This year, however, I think there might be something in what they're saying, because we've got a very different ball compared to the standard hexagon-pattern ball."

Bray says the reduced number of panels and seams on the +Teamgeist ball could potentially cause problems.

"Surprisingly, it's the seams between the panels that gives [a soccer ball] aerodynamic stability," he said.

Baseball Analogy

Bray says clues to the new ball's movement may come from looking at a baseball, which has only two panels and one seam.

"In baseball," he said, "pitchers occasionally throw a very confusing delivery called a knuckleball, which is thrown with virtually no spin."

As the baseball slowly rotates, the limited seam disrupts the airflow at specific points around it, causing the ball to wobble unpredictably (for kids: baseball's legacy).

Similar forces may be at work with the +Teamgeist ball, Bray says, but only if it is kicked with very little spin.

"This wouldn't happen with a 32-panel ball, because there's enough seam and stitching to ensure regularity," he added.

"The 14-panel ball is, in my view, much closer to a baseball as an aerodynamic object."

The result, he says, is that more goalkeepers at this year's World Cup could be expected to punch shots away from the goal instead of grabbing the ball safely.

"The last thing you want to do with a ball that's behaving [unpredictably] is actually try to catch it," he said.

The latest World Cup ball might not help goalkeepers, but other high-tech soccer balls should soon offer considerable assistance to referees.

FIFA's "smartball" technology involves a computer chip that can tell referees whether a team has scored or not. The technology is designed to end scoring controversies.

Ken Bray says the chip inside a smartball has its own power supply and transmits its location 2,000 times each second to radio antennas placed around a soccer field.

"This technology is very badly needed," Bray said. "It can remove from officials the task of determining something which the human eye isn't really that efficient at doing."

FIFA had planned to introduce smartballs at this year's tournament but has since postponed its introduction for "further development and testing."

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