Imagine that the MLB changed the baseball whenever the World Series rolled around. Or the NFL tinkered with the pigskin just in time for the Super Bowl. You can bet there’d be a laundry list of complaints as players adjusted to the equipment. Dropped passes and strikeouts would be blamed on the ball and more than a few grown men would throw tearful tantrums on national television.
Oddly enough, this is the lot of soccer, the world’s most popular sport, and arguably one of the most change-resistant. Last night, Adidas unveiled Brazuca, the official match ball of the 2014 World Cup, in host city Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Brazuca—a word proud locals use to describe something characteristically Brazilian—is a high-tech piece of equipment that was engineered to silence any would-be detractors, and the result is striking.
Six symmetrical, propeller-shaped, interlocking panels comprise the ball’s polyurethane surface, which is thermally bonded to make it waterproof. Brazuca borrows its insides—latex bladder, carcass, and foam layer—from balls that have already proven themselves in international competition. According to Adidas, which has redesigned the World Cup ball every four years since 1970, the revolutionary panel design improves symmetry, uniformity, and efficiency. “The unique, six-panel shape allows for better aerodynamics and a more stable, true seam geometry,” says Ernesto Bruce, director of soccer for Adidas America.
It was critical for Adidas to perfect this World Cup ball, a lesson it took away from the 2010 tournament, where its Jabulani ball was roundly criticized by coaches and players for having an erratic, unstable flight path. “This is the worst ball that I have seen in my life,” said England coach Fabio Capello. Nigerian midfielder Dickson Etuhu agreed with him, blaming the ball for his team’s loss to Argentina. Even NASA aerospace engineers got in on the game, pointing out Jabulani’s “knuckle-ball effect.” Naturally, Adidas doesn’t want a similar showing in Brazil. And who can blame them? Passions run high in soccer, the sport that begat hooliganism, regularly causes riots and, in one extreme case, helped spark a brief war between El Salvador and Honduras. Not to mention half the world will likely tune in to the World Cup.
So how do you produce an unassailable ball? Careful design, and a whole lot of testing. “Brazuca is the most tested ball we’ve ever created,” says Bruce. Over three years in development, Adidas put Brazuca through a battery of lab trials—testing its aerodynamics in a wind tunnel; kicking it endlessly with a robotic leg to measure speed, distance, and accuracy; and dropping it repeatedly to ensure consistent rebound and pressure. Outside of the lab, more than 600 players from 30-plus teams tested the ball in practice and in games. Adidas interviewed 280 of those players regarding their perceptions of the ball’s feel and appearance. “We cast a wide net to make sure we understood what player acceptance was,” says Bruce, “and that the ball was accepted.”
Finally, they snuck an all-white version of it into the recent U-20 World Cup and into a Sweden-Argentina friendly. “We want to make sure the ball is consistent from the first minute to the 90th minute, and it does what it’s supposed to do throughout the entire game,” says Bruce.
For its part, Adidas believes it’s done all it can to ensure a top-notch match ball for the 2014 World Cup, and Brazuca appears a worthy centerpiece for the world’s most watched sporting event. But the real test begins in a couple of weeks, when Adidas sends the new balls to the national associations managing the Cup teams to distribute to their players. We’re not predicting any wars, but we are definitely expecting complaints.