Balls on the Line

Every four years, the World Cup comes around, and every four years, two things happen with remarkable consistency. First, England instantly self-destructs and conspires to undermine every patriotic sentiment within me. And second, the world’s greatest footballers complain about the new balls.

Football (sic) is not a complicated sport: two teams, two goals and a ball.  There are no pads, no sticks, no bats, no helmets and no protective goggles. In this era of the relentless pursuit of new stuff, every other sport is in some way defined by technological advances: lighter materials, larger sweetspots, power zones and higher torque.  Even swimming now has controversial magic Speedos. But there’s just not much to play with when it comes to football — at the end of the day, it’s still about the foot and the ball.

So how does the sport keep pace with the times?  Rather than some meaningful advancement like, for instance, a slightly more reliable way of telling if the ball has crossed the goal line, the sport’s governing body gets Adidas to design a new ball.

And so every World Cup opens with the unveiling of the new ball. This year, the Jabulani is a futuristic celebration of next-generation technologies and a tenuous link to the cultural fabric of the host country. After Adidas-sponsored athletes tell the assembled world media how round it is and how much they enjoy kicking it, everybody else involved in football settles in to the realization that they will be expected to perform, in what should be the defining moment of their careers, with a ball that doesn’t quite do what they would expect it to.

Adidas has been making the official World Cup ball since 1970, when they introduced the legendary Telstar for the Mexico World Cup. The Telstar was the first World Cup ball to feature the now iconic black-and-white, hexagon/pentagon shape and based on a concept by Richard Buckminster Fuller, an architect who successfully developed a more efficient geometry for building geodesic domes. The color scheme of the Telstar was designed specifically to make the ball easier to see on the black and white televisions of the time, which was a good thing for everyone.

And since that day, 40 years ago, brilliant minds have been working hard to make the ball rounder and rounder (in four year increments). On the face of it, you’d think that this was simply the relentless march of progress—balls are meant to be round, so a rounder ball is a better ball. But the real issue it seems, is that there isn’t really a problem to fix. Just because it’s possible to make the football rounder, it doesn’t mean it should be rounder.

So what happens is that at every World Cup, the teams are presented with a new ball so technically advanced that it feels, moves, and acts differently than the ones with which they are used to playing. And the best players in the world spend four weeks learning to adjust to a fundamentally new set of parameters instead of showcasing the beautiful game to the world.

Innovative? For sure. Adidas sells a ton of new balls, they celebrate ground-breaking new technology, and the world learns a new word in a foreign language. But innovation for innovation’s sake?  Probably. Just ask Robert Green

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