As the 2018 World Cup continues in Russia, all eyes will be on one object: the iconic black and white soccer ball, or Soccer if you are outside of the United States. The Adidas Telstar 18 features a ‘pixelated’ design where the familiar black dots always appear to be being downloaded over a spotty internet connection. This is the latest edition of the ever-changing official World Cup ball, but some things, like opinions on a new ball, that players, including frustrated goalkeepers, rarely do. They hate it.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, there is a lot of scientific thinking behind the design of a soccer ball, and surprisingly enough, the current soccer ball design became iconic not so long ago.
Black and white soccer balls have only been around since the 1960s, when advances in materials science and the futuristic work of Buckminster Fuller popularized the “Buckminster” style of soccer ball, consisting of 20 hexagons and 12 pentagons. The color scheme had a simple function – it made the ball easier to see, especially on black and white TVs.
In 1985, Fuller’s invention was honored when an iconic soccer ball-shaped molecule was named in his honor. “MOLECULE IS SHAPED LIKE A SOCCER BALL” was the direct title in the New York Times on buckminsterfullerene, a molecule of carbon atoms bonded together.
The black-and-white ball made its first World Cup appearance in 1970, in a design called the Telstar ball – still the most recognizable soccer ball design (A bit of World Cup trivia: Brazil won that year and it was the “greatest World Cup of all time”). Over the decades that followed, the World Cups featured a number of different balloon designs, but most took inspiration from this original in one way or another. Until 2006, all had 32 panels in the “Buckminster” arrangement, but not always in these exact color configurations.
Scientists have studied the Buckminster and his descendants to see if they actually have an impact on gameplay, and there is evidence to suggest that the design changed the sport as it contributed to those “bigger goals of 1970”.
The first World Cup ball with 20 hexagons and 12 pentagons, now an iconic design, was used in 1970
Factors ranging from the seam to the shape of the panel all have an effect on the way soccer balls fly. A 2017 study found that the stitching patterns on FIFA balls create a trail when the ball is in the air, helping to stabilize its trajectory. The researchers also tested seamless balls, finding that they had more spin and flew at a higher speed. But the seams also have downsides: A ball with seams is more likely to pick up water and can be more difficult to handle, according to Adidas, which has been making the World Cup ball since 1970.
The seam length can also have an effect on the way the ball flies, which is more important since 2006 when the balls stopped having the same seam length. Several studies have also examined the effect of the shape of the backboard on the behavior of a ball. In 2014, using a wind tunnel and a punching robot (that’s exactly what it looks like), researchers at the University of Tsukuba in Japan discovered that different shapes of panels on bullets used in 2014 World Cup matches affected the amount of drag they experienced. Another study found that the number of panels on the bullet also affected the amount of drag.
The fourteen panel Teamgeist 2 bullet experiences less drag than the 32 panel bullets that came before it because it is more spherical than these bullets.
In 2014, scientists observed a correlation between wind tunnel test results and actual bullet trajectories, and also clarified how panel characteristics affected bullet flight, which predicted the trajectory.
Croatian player Luka Modric scores a long-distance goal in a match against Argentina this World Cup.
The style of the ball has an effect on the game, which World Cup players have been saying for a long time. Adidas, the long-time official manufacturer of the ball, continues to bring a new design to every World Cup.
This year you can watch the Telstar 18 – which is ‘heat sealed’ and has no seams – fly around the pitch during matches. the Standard Evening, a UK newspaper, reported ahead of the tournament that the ball “was designed to reduce the amount of dives and movements players can put on the ball, especially from set pieces.” The correlation isn’t causation, but set-piece goals have been one of the great stories of this World Cup.
Two goalies have already complained about the design, but hey, it’s the World Cup. This seems to happen every year as players adjust to a new ball and the way it holds air, the way it flies through the air, and how softly they have to cushion it with their feet. .
In 2010, the Adidas “Jabulani” model ball, used at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa (Your last piece of World Cup trivia: In the final, Andrés Iniesta scored in overtime, in the 116th minute, to give the country its first World Cup) was hated. Ahead of the tournament, Spain goalkeeper Iker Casillas compared it to a beach ball.
“The ball is terrible,” England goalkeeper David James told reporters ahead of this year’s tournament. “There will undoubtedly be goals scored in this tournament that would not have been scored in previous tournaments with different balls. This will allow some people to score extra goals, but will leave some goaltenders silly.”
The science behind a soccer ball, like the sport itself, is constantly evolving, but one thing remains the same: Goalkeepers never like the World Cup ball.