by George Rosie

To Keep the Ball Rolling

May 26, 2014 | by George Rosie

Last year FIFA, world football’s governing body, asked Brazilian fans to vote for the name that should be attached to the match ball for this summer’s World Cup finals. More than a million took part, more than 78% of of whom opted for ‘Brazuca’ – a conflation of the name Brazil and Brasuca, the Portuguese word for the US anti-tank weapon the ‘Bazooka’. There were two alternatives: ‘Carnavelsca’ (a nod in the direction of Brazil’s renowned street thrash) and ‘Bossa Nova’ (the elegant Samba rhythm native to Brazil). But neither of those impressed the fans. They preferred Brazuca’s combination of Brazilian nationalism and rocket-powered aggression. So Brazuca it is. It’s a name we will soon be familiar with when the tournament kicks off on 12 June when Brazil play Croatia in Sao Paulo.

As footballs go, the Brazuca is a handsome model. Weighing around 437 grammes and with a circumference of 69 centimetres the ‘casing’, as the outer skin is called, is made up of six interlocking cruciform (or propeller-shaped) panels heat moulded together. Inside there’s an air-filled bladder of carbon latex. Fittingly, the Brazuca is a veritable Samba of colour – vivid swirls of green, orange, blue and black against a dazzling white background. This, FIFA says, is to ‘symbolise the traditional, multi-coloured wish bracelets apparently worn by Brazilians’.

Any artist planning a sound and light ‘installation’ should have a look on the internet at the way the German sports goods giant Adidas introduced the Brazuca to the world in December last year. The venue was the city of Rio de Janeiro in the Romanesque atrium of a nineteenth-century mansion in the Enrique Lage park. After a play of dazzling colour on the arches and a projection of the names of all 32 nations in the finals, series of giant hologram(ish) images emerge of the various balls that Adidas has supplied for the World Cup over the last 44 years culminating in the Brazuca. Any child born in Brazil on the day the Brazuca was launched is entitled to his or her own copy of the ball.

Needless to say, the Brazuca also bears the three stripes logo of its creator, the German sporting goods giant Adidas. It was founded in 1924 to make boots and shoes by the brothers Adolf and Rudolf Dessler, both of whom became ardent Nazis. After the war the brothers fell out and Adolf went on to create Adidas while Rudolf founded Puma. There are many other football manufacturers – notably Nike of the USA and Select of Denmark – but none of their balls will be appearing on the football fields of Brazil this summer. That’s because the German company has had a lock on the balls for the World Cup extravaganza ever since the tournament was taken to Mexico in 1970. In the 40 years before that, World Cup footballs of the old-fashioned variety had been sourced from a range of countries and companies – e.g. Kost Sport of Switzerland, Remmen of Sweden, Custodia Zamara of Chile, Slazenger of the UK. That ended in 1969 when Adidas and FIFA cut a deal which gave the Germans the exclusive rights to provide the balls for the world’s most widely televised single-sport event. And not just for the matches, but also for all the training and practice sessions. No team that qualifies for the final stages of the World Cup is allowed to kick anything other than an Adidas ball.

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Supplying the footballing masses with balls is big business. Exactly how big, no one seems to know. The market is dominated by four main corporate players: Adidas and Puma of Germany, Nike (the biggest of the four) and Select. A relatively new and still very small newcomer is Alive & Kicking of Kenya which specialises in making footballs for Africa in African leather. Few balls, however, are actually made in the USA, Germany or Denmark. Most of the manufacturing is done in Asia. This is not part of the recent stampede of western industrialists to greener (i.e. cheaper) pastures. The Asian ball-making industry is much older than that. For many decades 80 per cent of the world’s footballs were made in and around the ancient Pakistani city of Sialkot in the Punjab on the border with India. During those decades most of the world’s match-quality footballs came from villages that surround Sialkot, usually in small workshops and stitching shops peopled by families of men, women and children.

This industry dates to the late nineteenth-century when British troops based near the Northwest Frontier needed footballs to keep themselves fit and amused. Legend has it that an enthusiastic local cobbler and leather worker offered to supply the balls and Sialkot’s ball-making industry was born. At the partition of the sub continent in 1947-8 thousands of Hindu artisans fled Sialkot into the Indian end of the Punjab and set up stitching shops in the district of Jalandhar where most of the stitching work is done by poor and disadvantaged Dalits, or ‘untouchables’.

Sialkot’s grip on the market was loosened in the 1990s when it was attacked by UNICEF and western NGOs for employing young children in harsh conditions for next to no money. This resulted in the Atlanta Agreement of February 1997 when it was agreed by UNICEF, the International Labour Organisation and the Sialkot Chamber of Commerce & Industry that no child under 15 should be employed stitching footballs together. Which was easier decreed than done, because Nike, Adidas and others had contracted out the work to firms in Pakistan of whom very few football fans would ever have heard: Talon Sports, Comet Sports, Capital Sports, Survive Sports, and AKI. And the new regime was not universally popular. Many Sialkot villagers relied on the rupees earned by their youngsters, scant though they were. Now the kids were being forced out to work in other, less amenable and often more dangerous industries, such as brick-making or scrap metal scavenging.

Adidas remains touchy about wage rates in Pakistan. In July 2012, its spokesman Bill Anderson posted a paper on the internet in which he argued that, ‘Pay has to be considered in terms of what it buys locally. With overtime pay, performance bonuses and other allowances a worker’s “take home” wage, as paid by our suppliers, is often double this number.’

For its part, Select of Denmark claim that neither it nor its Sialkot suppliers (AKI) has ever employed child labour and that what’s more it provides health and education ‘for all of the workers’ children.’ FIFA now insists that the companies who want the FIFA stamp of approval on their kit must sign up to the code of conduct laid down by the World Federation of Sporting Goods Industries.

By and large, however, the Atlanta Agreement prevailed. Wages for workers did rise, but output dropped and Sialkot’s share of the football market collapsed from 80 per cent to less than 40 per cent thanks to new, well-tooled companies in Thailand, Indonesia and China. Modern big-match balls are now a truly global product. For example, the ‘Jabulani’ ball that Adidas supplied for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa was developed in England and Germany, made in Thailand with latex from India, thermoplastic polyurethane elastomer from Taiwan and a whole cluster of complicated materials from China. The newly-fledged ‘Brazuca’ was similarly sourced.

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After striking its exclusive deal with FIFA in 1969 Adidas produced a new ball for the World Cup finals in Mexico in 1970. It was the now classic 32 panel arrangement of 12 pentagons and 20 hexagons, usually in black and white.

But it was not an Adidas design. The genius behind the 32-panel configuration was Eigil Nielsen, the goalkeeper in the Danish team which won a bronze medal at the 1948 Olympic Games in London. Thereafter Nielsen set up a company he called Select to make footballs for the Danish National Soccer Association. Nielsen and Select were genuine innovators. At first they came up with an eight-panel ball, which was followed by a laceless ball. Then, in 1962, they designed the 32-panel classic. Twelve years after that Select produced the first ball made of synthetic leather.

Nielsen never patented his work. ‘As a goalkeeper he wanted to have a round and balanced ball which he could trust in its flight’, said Peter Knap of Select. ‘He never patented any of his inventions as he wanted every football player to have the benefit of a better ball.’ His design was inspired by the ‘geodesic’ domes contrived by that wayward American genius Richard Buckminster Fuller. In the mid 1980s, US and Japanese astronomers discovered a particle of carbon in our solar system whose structure is identical to Nielsen’s pentagon/hexagon design. That particle is now known as the ‘Fullerene’ or ‘Buckyball’. Other companies may have abandoned the Buckyball format but Select of Denmark continues to sell large quantities of balls based on Nielsen’s design.

And for 24 years and over six World Cup tournaments the Buckyball reigned supreme although with various Adidas-created titles attached. In the 1970 World Cup finals in Mexico, for example, the ball was known as ‘Telstar’: in 1982 in Spain it was dubbed the ‘Tango Espana’, the last of the pure leather balls. The World Cup’s first-ever synthetic leather ball was the ‘Azteca’, which featured in Mexico in 1986.

In 1994, however, Nielsen’s classic design was dropped, when for the first time the World Cup was staged in the USA. FIFA was anxious to promote soccer in the USA but the previous tournament in Italy had been a dreary, defensive affair. Reckoning that Americans used to high-scoring games such as American football and baseball would never buy into such a dull game, FIFA briefed Adidas to come up with a new, and hopefully faster ball. The result was the ‘Questra’, a heat-bonded 18-panel design wrapped in a polystyrene foam shell ‘making for a lighter and more responsive ball’.

It seemed to do the trick. In the US there were goals galore. ‘The World Cup 94 was not to be the goalkeepers’ “lucky tournament”,’ FIFA opined in its official report. ‘The stars of the teams in the USA proved to be the strikers. They notched up 74 goals (66.7%) between them, far out stripping Italia 90 or Mexico 1986… ’ Which, of course, delighted Adidas. It seemed to prove that the design of the ball itself could spark life into the tournament and help give fans the goals they craved. Adidas kept faith with its successful 18-panel design for 1998 in France when the ball was called, appropriately, the ‘Tricolore’ and was done out in red,  white and blue. It was the first ever multi-coloured ball. In 2002 the World Cup finals in Japan and Korea saw much the same ball but with different colouring. It was labelled the ‘Fevernova’.

Then, in 2006, for the tournament in Germany, it was all change again. Adidas produced the ‘Teamgeist’ (‘team spirit’), a ball made up of 14 ‘truncated octahedron’ panels which were heat bonded together and not stitched. Designed by Adidas’s Scott Tomlinson and Anatol Just, the ball was tested by the Sports Technology Research Group at Loughborough University who found it was ‘more round’ than previous balls. By all accounts the Teamgeist pleased players. But it also had its share of critics. During and after the tournament there were grumbles about the ball’s erratic behaviour by, among others, the Brazilian striker Roberto Carlos and the English goalkeeper Paul Robinson. But the mutterings about the Teamgeist were as nothing compared to the barrage of complaints that emerged about Adidas’s next set of design changes.

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For the 2010 tournament in South Africa the techies at the Adidas Global Technology Center at Scheinfeld in Bavaria came up with a ball they called the ‘Jabulani’, the Zulu word for celebrate. They couldn’t have chosen a more unfortunate title. The Jabulani gave Adidas little cause to celebrate. For this ball the number of panels was reduced to eight. The balls were assembled in Thailand from latex bladders produced in India, thermoplastic polyurethane elastomer from Taiwan, plus ethylene vinyl, isotropic polyester/cotton fabric, glue and ink from China. The outer surface, the casing, of the Jubulani was pitted with what Adidas called ‘aerogrooves’ calculated to increase the ball’s lift. This is the so-called ‘Magnus effect’, named after the nineteenth-century German physicist Heinrich Magnus but which was first described in 1672 by Isaac Newton after he’d watched a cricket match.

The Jabulani was put through its paces on an array of testing devices and wind tunnels. It was also tested by an assortment of footballing stars including Frank Lampard, Michael Ballack and Kaka. Most of the players approved of it, as did the scientists at Adidas and FIFA. But when it came to the tournament it was almost universally declared a disaster. ‘It’s horrible. But it’s horrible for everyone,’ declared England goalkeeper David James. Diego Maradona, the Argentine manager, said ‘We won’t see any long passes in this World Cup because the ball doesn’t fly straight.’

The row rattled Adidas. It wheeled in the US space agency NASA to find out what went wrong with the Jabulani. The agency’s Aimes Research Centre in California tested the ball and came to the conclusion that the seams of the eight-panel design made the ball ‘knuckle’ (i.e. suddenly change direction) at speeds of around 50 mph. Which is hard for strikers taking long shots and hard for goalkeepers nearer the goal. In their technical report on the 2010 tournament FIFA acknowledged that many goalkeepers had problems handling long-distance strikes and suggested ‘a number of explanations for this, from the quality of the shots on target, to the goalkeepers’ positional play and possibly also to the ball itself which picked up incredible speed. The latter explanation was indeed confirmed by many goalkeepers…’ Whatever the reasons for the Jabulani’s unpopularity with players Adidas was determined that for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil the ball was not going to be a flop.

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The Brazuca is the result of two and a half years of careful design and development. It is certainly a high-tech product and a far remove from the leather-and-rubber balls that soaked up rainwater and reduced many a centre forward to unconsciousness for trying to head it into the net. The Brazuca has a bladder made from carbon latex and a ‘casing’ made from a blend of ethylene vinyl acetate and thermoplastic polyurethanes. The casing has thousands of tiny pits designed to enhance the Magnus effect. The ball is assembled by the Yayork Plastica Products Co. Ltd of Tian Liao Village in the city of Shenzhen, just north of Hong Kong. Yayork is a subsidiary of Long Way Enterprise Co. Ltd which seems to be headquartered in Taiwan.

But even the highest of high-tech balls have to be proved to FIFA’s satisfaction by EMPA, the Swiss government’s test labs near Zurich. There, footballs are tested for weight, roundness, bounce, water absorption, durability and pressure maintenance. According to FIFA, every new model of ball that wants to carry the FIFA stamp of approval is tested almost (but not quite) to destruction.

Clearly, getting a new ball onto the park is a lengthy and expensive process. But there’s little doubt Adidas will get its money back. If all goes according to plan Adidas will be selling millions of Brazucas across the world, particularly before, during and after the finals. Just about every junior football club and Sunday player in Europe, Asia, Latin America, and Africa will want their own copy of the ball. It’s believed that Adidas sold 10-12 million of the not-so-successful Jabulanis.

‘We expect the Brazuca to become the most popular match ball Adidas has ever produced,’ a company spokesman said. ‘Brazuca is our most tested ball ever. It went through two and a half years of testing in 10 countries across three continents involving more than 600 players and 30 teams. We interviewed 287 players – a third of which are not contracted to Adidas – and the feedback has been extremely positive.’

 

Where the design of the World Cup ball goes from here only Adidas knows. But the number of panels that make up every World Cup ball has declined since the 32-panel Nielsen design made its tournament debut in 1970. Moreover, each ball is said to be more spherical than its predecessor. It’s possible that the ball for the 2018 World Cup in Russia will have just four panels. In which case, the evolution of the football will have gone full circle. What’s thought to be the world’s oldest surviving football comprises four panels of deer-skin leather roughly stitched around a pig’s bladder. It has been dated to around 1540 and was found lodged in the rafters of the Queen’s Chamber in Stirling Castle. It conjures up an unlikely image of Mary of Guise and her ladies-in-waiting playing a game of ‘keepy-uppy’ until the ball got stuck in the rafters.It can be seen at Stirling’s Smith Museum where it is one of the main attractions.

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