Is the World Cup Ball Too Fast?

Adidas (ADS:GR) has finally made a soccer ball that flies true—maybe too true.

The Brazuca model being kicked around in Brazil doesn’t dip or knuckle like a drunken hummingbird. And it swerves only when someone such as Lionel Messi gives it some heavy spin, what pool players call English.

Thus far the World Cup has seen few instances of goalkeepers flailing at a seemingly possessed ball (like this shot in 2006 and this one and this one in 2010).

Which is not to say the new ball isn’t finding the back of the net. Through the round of 16, 154 goals have been scored in the competition thus far, almost three per game. If that pace holds, this will be the highest-scoring World Cup on record, besting the 1998 tally of 171 goals.

The issue (in addition to some hugely talented strikers) isn’t wobble; it’s speed. The Brazuca is incredibly aerodynamic. Like a baseball with no seams, it doesn’t get pushed around much by the air, but it does shoot through the air quite quickly. To borrow another analogy from America’s pastime, shooters in Brazil are firing fastballs, not knucklers or curves.

NASA confirmed this. The Jabulani model used in the 2010 World Cup wafted in the breeze like a beach ball, according to Spanish keeper Iker Casillas. NASA found, however, that the Brazuca wobbles only at relatively slow speeds, velocities far slower than the average professional shot.

Adidas achieved this, according to the rocket scientists, by streamlining seams. The Brazuca has just six panels, vs. the Jabulani’s eight and the 32 little patches in old-fashioned, checkerboard soccer balls. The seams are also deeper, and the surface of the ball is covered in tiny bumps, which decreases the drag that forms in the pocket of air behind the ball. In short, the ball moves faster.

The result has been a salvo of long-range goals—”wunderstrikes,” as the Men in Blazers broadcast duo call them. There was this one by the Netherlands, this one by Mexico, and this one by Colombia. In all those cases, the unfortunate goalies knew where the ball was heading; they just couldn’t get there in time. When Jermaine Jones ripped his now-famous shot against Portugal from about 30 yards away, the goalie hardly moved.

“We goalkeepers are trying to stop the ball as best we can,” Colombian goalkeeper David Ospina told Bloomberg. “It’s pretty difficult.”

Adidas, in short, has made the ball more predictable but less stoppable.

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