Everyone's a geek these days. It's all the rage. Even footballers are up to it now. For this year's World Cup, FIFA, Adidas, Umbro and the players alike have been pulling out as many stops as the rules will allow to bring technology to the beautiful game. So, short of hydraulic kangaroo legs and genetic enhancements, this is the level of engineering sophistication that the eye won't see that's actually powering the competition in South Africa in June.
Every new tournament has brought a different World Cup match ball to the pitch since 1976 and all of them have been made by Adidas. 2006 brought the Adidas Teamgeist - the first ball to have its panels thermally bonded together rather than made with traditional stitching. Unfortunately, it picked up some criticism from a few of the top players for its variable performance when wet, its lightness and loss of air resistance, so the top sports boffins at Loughborough University's Sports Technology Institute have been putting a few things right for 2010.
The ball for South Africa is known as the Jambulani which is the isiZulu word meaning "to celebrate". Again, it has its panels thermally bonded together - 8 of them this time - and each of them are spherically moulded making it the first ball that's perfectly smooth and round. As well as that, Dr Andy Harland and his team added a surface texture to the outside for increased boot to ball traction. It's called Grip 'N Groove and it's rather like the taking the mountain to Mohammed version of what Adidas did when it introduced the Predator boot adding a layer of grip to the players feet.
The arrangement of the grips is in a specific pattern to counteract the issues that the last ball had. The problem with the thermally bonded panels is that it's the old stitching that used to provide the flight stability of the balls with the air channelled down specific patterns. After consulting Dr Martin Passmore, an expert in aerodynamics from the University’s Department of Aeronautical and Automotive Engineering, they tested the Jambulani in Loughborough's wind tunnel and came up with the idea of aero grooves on the surface of the ball to add that required element which had been missing before.
After repeat testing with the kicking robotic leg designed to put the ball through its paces over and over again, the Jambulani was finally ready. It's been endorsed by all sorts of top end players as part of Adidas' campaign and you can see how it's all put together in the rather satisying Blue Peter-style production line video. The real test, of course though, will be on 11 June.
There's plenty of choice of boots out there but the one making the headlines at the moment is again from Adidas and called the F50 adiZero. The reason why it's causing such a stir is because FIFA World Player of the Year, Lionel Messi is going to be wearing them.
The adiZero is Adidas' lightest football boot ever, weighing in at just 165g for a UK size 8.5. The idea behind it is speed. The lighter the boot, the less weight your leg has to carry and the easier it is to skip away from the lumbering tackles of the clumsy centre halves. That's the theory anyway. Whether a few grams here or there really makes that much difference to your pace on a football pitch is another thing though.
The light weight is achieved largely by putting holes in everything. The upper skin of the boot is made with a single piece of polyurethane microfibre with an utlra-light, perforated insole and the laces on one side to leave a smoother kicking surface on the top for a cleaner contact with the ball. Stability for this delicate structure comes from polyurethane banding across the upper, a wider footbed and heel to distribute the load evenly and a series of bridges across the outsole.
The technology that probably does actually make a difference to the players speed on the grass though, is what's on the underside. Adidas has borrowed the idea of the running spike and created some moulded rubber triangular shaped grips on the bottom of the boot, which should dig firmly into the ground and provide excellent traction for acceleration from standing and a solid base for the kinds of sudden changes of direction the speed players need to shake off defenders.
Naturally, the F50 adiZero will eventually be available for mere mortals to buy and realise that they're still not any good at football.
As the stalwart England shirt designer, Umbro hasn't been one to miss out on the technology either. While the shirt harks back to the old school days with its embroidered looks and plain white collar design, it features a few hidden gems to keep the players cool and looking good at the same time.
With a lot of players wearing undershirts these days, it's easy to get their clothing in a twist, so this design has articulated sections to make sure the two layers move as one. The undershirts remain ribbed for air ventilation but the real genius of keeping the players from burning up under the South African sun is the switch from the microfibre mesh to an apparently more simple system of groups of perforations in key places. This creates an airflow underneath the shirt convecting the hotter air out and sucking the cooler in.
At the practical level, there are also weights in the collar to keep them from flapping in the players faces when they're trying to get their heads on the ball and the removal of shoulder seams to reduce friction on the players skin, the poor lambs. But before you think that's a modern day nancy boy idea, that's the very same idea as dictated by Alf Ramsey in 1966.
Whether all this works or not in the burning heat after 60 minutes against the USA is another question but it's still a nice looking shirt.
The one you won't see
Along comes another major FIFA tournament and still there's no sign of introducing the Hawkeye system to make incorrect goal decisions a thing of the past. The camera based technology was kicked out of trials back in 2008 by the top bods in the game, despite the cries from the managers in the leagues around the world. When you look at the technology behind it, it's staggering they're still saying no.
The system works by having multiple high tech cameras trained on the area directly in front of each goalmouth. The information they record is processed in real time by a bank of computers which sends the data straight over to a central machine which processes it and transmits the result automatically to either the watch or earpiece of the referee.
All of that takes just 0.5 seconds and is accurate to 5mm. Even if there's bodies all over the place in a goal line scramble, the multiple camera angles still allow the system to work properly. What's more, the cameras work at 500fps, so will be able to detect if the ball goes over the line for just a tiny fraction of a second.
There doesn't sound like a lot wrong with that but, at the moment, the future for the most sensible bit of technology in the game doesn't look too hopeful. Fingers crossed no one gets robbed of victory in South Africa.
If you enjoyed this article, then head over to our World Cup Week homepage where you'll find a collection of features getting ready for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa.