The 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup is in full swing as some of the world’s best footballers have descended upon Australia and New Zealand in a bid to get their hands on the coveted prize. It is the ninth instalment of the tournament which began in 1991.
Unveiled just a few months before the tournament began was the official match ball – ‘OCEAUNZ’ made by adidas. Its design is inspired by the unique landscapes of the host countries. But it’s not just its eye-catching design that sets OCEAUNZ apart.
OCEAUNZ has incorporated new technologies and fabrication methods.
According to the official Football Australia statement on the ball, OCEAUNZ features:
- CTR-CORE – a core within the ball designed to improve accuracy and consistency, supporting fast, precise play with maximum shape and air retention.
- SPEEDSHELL – a polyurethane skin with micro and macro textures and a new 20-piece panel shape, enhancing aerodynamics.
- CONNECTED BALL TECHNOLOGY – A Suspension System in the centre of the ball hosts and stabilises a 500Hz inertial measurement unit (IMU) motion sensor, providing new insights into the ball’s movement. The sensor is powered by a rechargeable battery, which can be charged by induction.
Use of technology in footballs has accelerated in recent years. Only last year, for the first time at a men’s World Cup, FIFA introduced microchipped balls to assist referees making decisions as to whether a ball has crossed the goal line.
This same “connected ball technology” is in use at this year’s women’s World Cup.
“The advances in technology application to sport are quite amazing,” Dr Kenneth Graham, principal scientist at sports technology company eo, told Cosmos. “[IMUs] use accelerometers and gyroscopes to measure linear acceleration and rotation respectively.”
“There are multiple examples of their application in sport as the tech has become solid-state, smaller and low-powered,” Graham adds. “eolab has just released a swim technique measurement system that uses an IMU to allow us to track the pattern of hand movement in three dimensions as well as a number of other metrics.”
The first FIFA Men’s World Cup was in 1930. Football (yes, I am a European-born football enthusiast who refuses to call it “soccer”) clubs have existed since the 15th century according to FootballHistory.org. And team sports involving a “ball” have existed in various cultures around the world for the last 3,000 years.
Surely there isn’t much that could be done to improve footballs.
According to Professor Derek Leinweber, a physicist at the University of Adelaide, “the important transition was to move away from the old 32-panel leather ball.” Leather balls can get waterlogged, sometimes doubling in weight. Leinweber adds that, because they were made from stitched together cowhides, the leather balls were not very precisely constructed.
Leinweber is an internationally renowned theoretical nuclear and particle physicist. He is also an expert on the aerodynamics involved in ball sports.
The first synthetic ball appeared in the 1960 FIFA Men’s World Cup, but the organisation preferred leather balls (though treated with a waterproof coating) until 1986 when synthetic balls became the norm.
Even then, how much more advanced can a synthetic football get?
“Aerodynamically, there’s nothing left to figure out,” Leinweber tells Cosmos. “Modern balls stay dry. They don’t absorb water, so the weight stays the same. The size is very precise. The roundness is incredibly round. This hasn’t changed since the [2006 men’s World Cup ball by adidas] Teamgeist came out.”
Leinweber says that the artwork and engineering of the ball may be interesting, but believes the ball is not a huge departure away from the aerodynamics of most footballs used in previous World Cups. And the exceptions are, perhaps, better resigned to the dustbin of history.
“The Jabulani issue was just huge,” Leinweber comments, referring to the 2010 men’s World Cup ball which caused international headlines for its unpredictable aerodynamics.
Leinweber explains that the Jabulani was “uncomfortably smooth” – it’s almost literally seamless surface meant that it was far more greatly influenced by turbulent air flow around the ball, leading to faster flight, and unpredictable dips and swerves.
While saying that the OCEAUNZ is “aerodynamically sound,” Leinweber notes that, “aerodynamically, there’s no good reason” to reinvent the football. He suggests that the sub-millimetre bumps and grooves on the ball may assist greater friction on a player’s boot, perhaps allowing for greater power or curve.
Because there is very little new aerodynamically that can be developed in footballs, Leinweber suspects that the introduction of a new ball before a major tournament is also a means to raise the profile of the competition and its partners.
He notes, however, that, because the ball is relatively smooth, it may have additional lift associated with backspin which players will need to watch out for.
“I guess you would build up some talent and some intuition,” Leinweber adds. “You have to know exactly how quickly to deliver this ball to get it to dip under the crossbar. Maybe, as it’s a new ball, they haven’t quite figured out the nuances of that. So, maybe a reason to introduce a new ball is it’s a bit of an equalizer and everybody has to quickly adapt to the new ball and adjust their talents.”
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