A Face-Lift for Soccer Balls

Soccer balls may not look like the most sophisticated pieces of technology. They come in many colors and get kicked around a lot -- on average 2,000 times during a regular 90-minute game. Generally made of 32 pentagons and hexagons of leather stitched together, the balls tend to lose their shape over time. A nd if it rains, they tend to become very heavy and stop bouncing.

But there are moves afoot to give the soccer ball a high-tech upgrade. The sport's professional governing body, FIFA, has announced that a new ball will be introduced in two months, just in time for the 2006 World Cup, which will take place in Germany from June 9 to July 9. At the event, which draws the second-largest TV audience in the world after the Olympics, 32 teams from six continents -- including the U.S. -- will make up the field, and play with the new "Teamgeist" ball.


  The Teamgeist, presented last December by FIFA and Adidas, its manufacturer, is a beautifully designed hi-tech object. It weighs about a pound and is made of 14 polyurethane panels bound together with a thermal process. That makes it much smoother and perfectly round. Yes, all balls are round. But this one is rounder than any other according to experts at Britain's University of Loughborough, and the Britons know soccer.

With fewer panels and no stitching, the Teamgeist is less prone to losing its shape after a kick. That gives the ball better aerodynamics -- the rounder the ball, the more balanced its flight -- and is supposed to provide the players significantly more control. Those who have tried it, such as Johann Vogel of Italy's top team, AC Milan, can't stop raving.

Though the new ball will be rounder, it won't be smarter. One new technology didn't make the cut for the World Cup. FIFA recently decided against embedding a tracking system based on a wireless microchip in the center of the ball. The chip's signal would be picked up by antennae positioned around the field, analyzed by computers, and immediately relayed to a "watch" worn by the referee. The system could help referees avoid mistakes. But after inconclusive testing during the Under-17 World Championship in Peru last October, the technology was benched, for now.


  Cairos Technologies, the German company that developed the technology together with the Fraunhofer Institute for Integrated Circuits, had earlier pushed an even more ambitious plan for players to wear microchips on their shin guards. Together with the smart ball, this would have generated vast amounts of statistical data about the game for coaches and spectators, such as minute details about players' position, ball speed, offense vs. defense, and mileage run, and made a serious impact on a game that's played on instinct rather than on statistical precision.

Attempts to "upgrade" soccer through the use of technology aren't new: Video-replay equipment which would allow referees to review actions has been discussed for a long time, but so far the sport has resisted them. This time, FIFA was willing to give the "smart ball" a try, but the technology isn't ready and "will need further developments and testing before using it at tournaments on the highest professional level", the FIFA media office said in reply to an e-mail enquiry. Soccer engineers will have to wait a little longer before they can get their kicks, too.

Links: FIFA World Cup: www.fifaworldcup.com

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