From next month, the new World Cup football, the Brazuca, will be available to national teams for international matches. It is part of the Adidas World Cup marketing campaign, but this in itself presents a problem: Adidas-sponsored teams will be able to get match experience with the ball during their internationals in March, yet Nike-sponsored teams, such as England, will not; England have to use Nike balls up to the start of the tournament as part of their kit deal, although they may be able to negotiate use of the Brazuca in pre-tournament friendlies.

brazuka1

Looking at the group stage draw, England are one of the worst-affected – they don’t even get a match against a minnow to get their collective eye in, opening against Italy. Fellow Nike team Holland are in a similar position, starting their campaign against defending champions Spain.

 

Will it make that much of a difference? Well based on complaints regarding past World Cup balls, it could be a big advantage to have match practice with it. The days of all footballs being the same are long gone – read on to find out how exactly the ball became as big a talking point as the action on the pitch…

 

The early years

 

Funnily enough, controversy has surrounded the World Cup match ball since the very first tournament way back in 1930. Conscious of the fact that they were accustomed to using a different football to hosts Uruguay, finalists Argentina insisted on using their ball for the final as a leveller; in the end a compromise was reached – Argentina’s ball was used for the first half and Uruguay’s ball for the second. There may have been something in it, too: Argentina went in at half-time 2-1 ahead, but conceded three unanswered goals in the second half.

 

The construct of the ball remained much the same in those early tournaments – thick, tough leather stitched together with lace. As the lace was removed, there were variations in the number of stitched panels used and the shape of those panels, and all the balls had names, of course. However, with the exception of ‘Mr Crack’, used at the 1962 World Cup in Chile (‘crack’ being used in a Spanish as a noun for something which is the very best of the best), the name did was not branded on the ball – heavy, one-colour balls were the order of the day throughout the 1950s and 60s.

Brazuca-Ball-Collection-790x377

Telstar, 1970

 

Television, predictably, changed everything. The 1970 World Cup was the first tournament to be televised live throughout, and Fifa brought in sportswear manufacturer Adidas – a relationship which has endured to this day – to create a football which would be better for TV audiences.

 

The result was the Telstar – a name derived from ‘television star’ – a combination of 12 black pentagonal and 20 white hexagonal panels. The contrast of black and white was introduced to make it easier to see for those watching in black and white, but for those lucky enough to be watching in colour, the impact was even greater.

 

The Telstar also introduced the Durlast coating; although the ball itself was made from genuine leather, a layer of polyurethane was introduced to help waterproof the ball and prevent it from becoming heavy in wet conditions.

 

Tango, 1978

 

A later variation of the Telstar was used again in 1974, before Adidas changed the game again in 1978 with the Tango. The Tango was the first football to have a genuine graphic design – again Adidas went with the 12-20 panel construction but all were white; the 20 white hexagonal panels were then overlaid with black triads to create the image of 12 circles over the surface.

 

The Tango continued into the 1982 World Cup in Spain, and the Tango Espana introduced rubberised seams for further waterproofing. However, the results were mixed and the ball often had to be changed.

 

Azteca, 1986

 

Adidas did away with genuine leather for good in 1986, introducing the first synthetic football, the Azteca. It meant teams had the first genuinely rain-resistant ball which would perform in the same manner on both soft and hard surfaces.

 

Adidas stuck with what had now become the iconic Tango pattern, but modified the triad designs to incorporate Aztec prints in tribute to the host nation, Mexico. It was a formula followed in Italy 1990 and USA 1994 with the Etrusco and the Questra; the former introduced an inner layer of polyurethane foam, and the latter was coated in polystyrene foam, making it lighter to the touch and quicker through the air.

 

Tricolore, 1998

 

The World Cup football exploded into colour in 1998, as Adidas incorporated red, white and blue – the colours of host nation France – into the classic Tango design. Construction got ever more technical, too: Adidas utilised ‘syntactic’ foam, made up of evenly-arranged balls of gas, supposedly ensuring better energy and shape retention when kicked.

 

Fevernova, 2002

 

With the turn of the millennium, the World Cup football moved into another era – one of colour and criticism. The Fevernova, the official ball of Japan-South Korea 2002, ditched the Tango design completely, looking to engage the merging Asian market with a Far Eastern design incorporating shades of gold and red. Again, further technological developments in synthetic layering saw Adidas promising a ball that was lighter than ever – but many decided it was too light, and prone to odd movements in the air.

 

Italy goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon was one of many to criticise the Fevernova, calling it a “ridiculous kiddy’s bouncing ball”. To the supporters, however, it seemed like a convenient excuse for the high amount of upsets in the early rounds of the tournament.

 

Teamgeist, 2006

 

For the 2006 tournament, to be held on Adidas’ home territory of Germany, the firm produced another radical re-invention – finally doing away with the 32 panels after more than three decades and using just 14 curved panels for the Teamgeist – the first step in a soon-to-be-familiar drive to make the ball ’rounder’.

 

However, the reception was not what Adidas had hoped for. England goalkeeper Paul Robinson said it was like a “water polo ball”, and his German counterpart Jens Lehmann warned that it “fluttered” in the air and would make handling the ball in the wet very difficult. Many brushed off the criticism in a ‘pffft, goalkeepers’ manner, but Brazilian dead-ball specialist Roberto Carlos also spoke up, claiming the ball was too light and he couldn’t work out how to striker the ball properly to make the most of his venomous, bending free-kicks.

 

Jabulani, 2010

 

The Adidas Jabulani was constructed from eight thermally-bonded polyurethane panels with the seams on the inside. This technique was used as a way to make the ball as close to a perfect sphere as possible – the ultimate football, if you like.

 

However, the complaints from players were immediate and persistent. Buffon described the trajectory as “unpredictable”, Julio Caesar of Brazil called it “terrible” and suggested he could pick up a better football at the supermarket, while Chile goalkeeper Claudio Bravo said it was like a “beach ball”. Yet it wasn’t just goalkeepers – everyone seemed to hate it. Italy’s Giampaolo Pazzini claimed that he would go up to head a cross and then find the ball wasn’t where it should be, and Brazil striker Luis Fabiano explained: “It’s like it doesn’t want to be kicked. It’s incredible, it’s like someone is guiding it. You are going to kick it and it moves out of the way. I think it’s supernatural.” All in all, the self-styled ‘perfect football’ was about as much use as a penny floater from a petrol station.

 

Adidas expressed surprise at the criticism, saying it had been tested rigorously. However, as the tournament progressed, scientists began conducting tests of their own to try and explain the phenomenon; many agreed that the ball being almost perfectly spherical was actually the problem. Golf balls, tennis balls and baseballs have exposed seams or textured surfaces to allow spin, and it is this spin which gives control and stability to the trajectory. Tests on the Jabulani found that it hardly span at all, causing it to ‘float’ through the air in an unstable fashion, suddenly changing direction and with a tendency to slow down suddenly in mid-air.

adidas-Brazuca-Soccer-Ball

Brazuca, 2014

 

With dissatisfaction about the World Cup ball escalating over the last three World Cup tournaments, the pressure is on Adidas to produce something better with the Brazuca. Dangerous talk of the ball being ‘faster’ and ’rounder’ will have goalkeepers rolling their eyes, but the addition of basketball-style dimples to the surface may have it behaving better than the Jabulani; Adidas says the Brazuca feels more like the ball used in the Champions League than the South Africa 2010 match ball.

 

Lionel Messi has been talking it up, but he is Adidas’ leading football star and would be unlikely to say any different – and besides, Messi could probably play with a ball of socks and have it do exactly what he wanted. It won’t be until mere mortals play with it that we’ll truly know how it works, which for England, won’t be until the summer.