By Kim Smiley
Unlike other sports where the balls remain relatively constant, a new soccer ball is typically unveiled for the World Cup every 4 years. The changes made to the balls aren’t just cosmetic; the behavior of the soccer ball can vary between designs. One of the most controversial designs in recent memory was the Janulani, the official ball of the 2010 World Cup that was widely criticized and dubbed “the beach ball”.
The issues surrounding the Janulani soccer ball can be analyzed by building a Cause Map, a visual root cause analysis. To build a Cause Map, “why” questions are asked to determine what factors contributed to an issue and answers are visually laid out to show the cause-and-effect relationships. To view a Cause Map of this issue, click on “Download PDF”.
So why was the 2010 World Cup ball the focus of so many complaints? Players felt that the ball was unpredictable and behaved differently than previous ball designs. Scientists studied the Janulani ball and determined that it was less aerodynamically stable, particularly at the speeds typical for a professional free kick, which made the goalie’s job significantly harder and tempers flare. The Janulani ball was a fundamentally different design: it had fewer panels (8 instead of the traditional 32), a smoother surface and internal stitches. The ball was basically so smooth it changed how air flowed around it, including the speed where the transition between smooth and turbulent flow occurred. The placement of the seams was also significantly different and not as balanced so that the ball moved erratically at times. One can assume that the testing program for the new soccer ball design was inadequate since the changes in flight path patterns were not intentional, so that is another cause that needs to be considered.
It’s also worth noting that the fact that a new soccer ball design was used for the 2010 World Cup is a cause of the problem. Few other sports have equipment that is changed so frequently and/or debut new equipment at major international events. So why is there a new ball for every World Cup? Money certainly plays a role since there is a huge demand for World Cup merchandise and a new ball means a new product to sell. The restrictions governing soccer ball design are also vague – for example, the number of panels are not specified – which allows plenty of wiggle room for innovation.
The problems with the 2010 World Cup ball seem to have been fixed and the 2014 World Cup ball, the Brazuca, doesn’t seem to be generating close to the amount of negative press. In order to smooth out the flight pattern, this design is about a half-ounce heavier, has a slightly rougher surface and deeper seams. There has been some speculation that the fast flying Brazuca is responsible for the high number of goals scored this World Cup, but the ball appears to fly predictably – if fast. If you want a stylish new Brazuca official match ball of your own, they are selling for $160 each.
If you are still feeling blue that the US is out the World Cup, try searching #ThingsTimHowardCouldSave. It should cheer you up a bit.