Adidas Jabulani vs Nike T90 Ascente
Let's get this part out of the way quickly. England lost 4-1 to Germany. Lost like pigs, we did. There's no two ways about it and there's no point ignoring. Come on. Shout it aloud. Let it out. That's the only healthy way to deal with these things. Just ignore the HR manager and declare it across the room. If you're asked, you just say you're helping to cleanse the vibe in the office. You're doing it for the team.
So, yes. England lost like pigs. Naturally, the post mortems are well and truly under way and, as much fun as it might be to analyse Capello's tactics, sadly that's not our place to do such things on a technology website. What we know of football has to be kept to enthusiastic amateur status. Where we have a better idea of stuff is on the science end of things, and what we can examine is one of the major complaints the players have had about the competition this summer in South Africa - the ball.
We took a look at the FIFA World Cup 2010 match ball, the Adidas Jabulani, during our World Cup/Home Cinema week here on Pocket-lint long before the heavy criticism began. Yet, what sounded like a fantastic work of sports engineering in theory has turned out to be a dubious item of kit in practice. But are the players complaints purely anecdotal or is there any hard evidence to what's going on?
Taking the ball that the England, Italian and Spanish league players had all been used to throughout their previous club seasons, the Nike T90 Ascente, we directly compared the specs of both what FIFA demand and what Adidas produced. The German-based players, of course, had been playing with the Jabulani all season before they ever got on the plane to South Africa.
One of the first complaints made by the players was that the Jabulani was much lighter than the ball they were used to. A quick glance at the stats shows that that's simply not the case. Not only is it at the heavier end of what FIFA allows but it even weighs a good 5g more than the Ascente. What the players might be referring to is the way the ball flies higher and perhaps further than many of them anticipated, however rather than being its mass, it's more likely a function of its aerodynamics.
Both balls have been tested in wind tunnels but where the Ascente has a regular pattern of panels and stitches where the air can be channelled as it flies, the Jabulani represents a move to a thermally bonded and therefore smoother surface. According to Loughborough University where the ball was designed:
"Improvements in production methods and the use of controllable synthetic materials also make it the most spherical ball ever made, further improving its aerodynamics and consistency".
A smoother, more spherical ball is going to create far less drag than an older style panel stitch version. Less drag means that the air has less of an effect on its flight, so it can go further with less power before resistance slows it down.
In that way, every time a player used to a more air-resistant outer kicked the Jabulani, it would be of little surprise to see them over kick or hit the ball way too high - possibly where the myth of being lighter comes from.
Now as it happened, the engineers at Loughborough discovered that such a smooth surface had a detrimental effect on the ball's flight - more on that later. The team added what they called called aero-grooves to the outer - air channels across the ball's skin - as well as a dimpled texture to the ball which was used to enhance grip for the players on contact.
Although the Nike's Ascente is a panel stitched ball, the ultimate goal for the surface was the same. Senior designer on the ball, Todd Smith said:
"We have a team of engineers, who tested around 20 different materials and tested the casings in the wind tunnels and the goal was to select one that produced the least drag when the ball's in the air and that means truer shots and truer passes".
So, given the players complaints, the only conclusions you can draw are that the footballers themselves are incorrect in their observations in terms of the "lightness" of the ball or that Adidas just didn't take things far enough, and that Grip 'N Groove system was just not as effective as the combination of the natural stitched channels and the chosen texture of the Ascente.
The rest of the stats in the table are remarkably similar. It'd be a very far stretch to suggest that a 0.6cm difference in rebound was what was to blame. In fact, as we saw, back when we first wrote about the World Cup ball, the Jabulani was tested for its precision and consistency. The team at Loughborough created a robotic leg to kick the test ball over and over again in exactly the same way to ensure that the trajectory of the ball was identical each time.
"With our kicking robot we've been looking to mimic particular kicks - spin kicks, free kicks, shots, corners - all of these things have been mimicked specifically".
"When compared to a 32-panel stitch ball, for example, you don't get the differences in stiffness or the differences in response that are a function of the material or the stitching arrangement around the ball. This ball is very consistent all around the circumference. Wherever you kick it you're going to get a very similar response".
One of the differences between the laboratory and the football field though, could be that football players do not in fact have robotic legs and they don't hit the ball to the millimetre in precisely the same way each time they attempt to do the same thing with it.
Instead of dropping the idea of panels altogether, the engineers of the Ascente found another way around the problem of accuracy. They created a 360-degree sweet spot around the ball. According to Nike:
"Energy travels evenly through the panels from the point of contact for a consistent touch no matter where it's hit".
The idea is that you can kick the ball anywhere on its surface and it will take off with the power as if you've struck it square in the middle.
So, while the Jabulani seems to require high precision of touch, the Ascente looks to help make up for human inaccuracy. Had all the England players the gift of Lionel Messi, they might be okat, but Frank Lampard - good player though he is - is not quite so cultured with his powered efforts at goal.
Probably the biggest complaint from the players is the way the Jabulani moves through the air. The goalkeepers' union was very quick to come out and say it was impossible to predict the flight of the ball. In some of the replays in the World Cup, the ball has certainly looked rather unpredictable on its way to goal and if these videos from German football enthusiasts (apologies) are as genuine as they seem to be, then it seems the keepers have more than just a bit of a case:
So, if this is indeed happening, what the hell is going on?
Well sadly, the movement of the ball through the air is an area that the team at Loughborough went through particular pains to get right. The Jabulani team said:
"We've been asking expert colleagues in aerodynamics to look at the surface of the ball and how it affects the flight through the air".
"What we've tried to do here is the inclusion of the things like these aero grooves to make sure the ball is much more symmetrical in flight and so it flies in a more controlled way and gives the control then back to the players, so they can get it to do what they want it to do".
The artificial grooves were added to make up for the fewer panels on the surface of the Jabulani, and all that you can really suggest is that something in the testing has not gone according to plan. It's plain for most to see that the ball does not do quite what you'd expect mid-flight.
Whether the surface of the ball was ultimately still too smooth; making it swerve in the same kind of way that a beach ball might or whether there just weren't enough aero grooves to do the job in practice will doubtless be reconsidered once the World Cup is over.
Interestingly though, there was something that Nike said that sparked our attention. Its first stage of creation is what they call the "Elite Player Testing".
"We've spent hundreds and hundreds of hours with high level clubs and the athletes training with the ball. We look for their feedback and any insight to how the ball is performing".
While the Adidas team were clear to point out that that they responded to player feedback in the creation of the Jabulani, the focus then seemed to move to a more artificial test environment with the robotic leg and computer modelling. This rather raises the question of whether it indeed logged quite as much time with the most important lab rats of all - the players - as the Nike engineers and its "hundreds of hours".
Naturally, nobody's privy to the precise details of all the testing but with FIFA admitting that all is not quite right with its appointed match ball, clearly something in either the lab or in the brief given to the engineers has not been considered properly.
Sadly, all this is academic though, as nothing will be done about it until after the World Cup is over and, of course, England are already out of the competition. However, the question remains. Would it have made any difference if the Ascente had been used? Would Upson and Terry have been less responsible for the litany of defensive errors? Would Wayne Rooney actually have showed any form? Would the referee have given Frank Lampard's goal that never was? Unfortunately, it takes more than a ball to answer that lot.