Beyond the quality of football displayed at the ongoing World Cup in Qatar and the upsets, including another early exit for Germany, one issue that has been much talked about in the news and on social media is the ball, especially with regards to Portuguese international, Cristiano Ronaldo and Thursday night when Japan caused another upset by beating Spain.
The debates have cut across different subjects, but the recurring denominator has been the ball, which has drawn interest to the manufacturing, design and the swathe of technological innovations that were considered in delivering the round leather that the 32 participating countries started kicking around with the goal of lifting the trophy when the tournament comes to an end on December 18.
What began the most debate about the ball took off after the Monday, November 28 Group H fixture between Portugal and Uruguay. By the final whistle, Portugal had beaten Uruguay 2-0 and booked their place in the round of 16.
However, for the first of those two winning goals, Ronaldo’s ex-teammate at Manchester United, Bruno Fernandes, had curled in a cross, which Ronaldo leapt high into the air in a bid to head into the net.
Although the ball appeared to glance across Ronaldo’s head, while nestling in the bottom corner, the 37-year-old, whose controversial interview with Piers Morgan was still causing ripples in Manchester, wheeled away in delight, claiming the goal as his own. Yet, eagle-eyed observers noticed that the replays clearly showed that the former United man did not make contact with the ball enough to be credited with the goal.
Officially, match officials made the right call to award the goal to Fernandes. This did nothing to please the legendary marksman, who continued to claim that his head touched the ball before it sailed into the net. His celebration post-goal said that much. He even went as far as reporting the incident to Morgan – who is in regular contact with the clubless star – insisting that he got a touch.
In the spirit of sportsmanship, Fernandes took Ronaldo’s side. During the post-match interview, Fernandes addressed the issue saying: “I celebrated (the goal) as if it had been Cristiano’s goal. It seemed to me that he had touched the ball. My aim was to cross the ball for him.” With Ronaldo on a record-breaking spree after becoming the first-ever player to score in five different World Cups, it is easy to understand his zeal to be at the forefront of Portugal’s progression in Qatar. The goal would have taken him level with legendary striker Eusebio on nine World Cup goals for Portugal, but that will have to wait.
However, there was a need to set the records straight.
The responsibility for that fell on Adidas, the sports gear manufacturer that provides the official World Cup footballs. With the embedded technology in the ball, they were able to scientifically prove that the goal was rightly awarded to Fernandes because, as they explained, the technology in the match ball proved conclusively no contact was made when the ball went over Ronaldo, meaning he made no significant contact to have any right to be credited with the goal.
A statement to that effect from FIFA on behalf of Adidas read: “In the match between Portugal and Uruguay, using the Connected Ball Technology housed in Adidas’s Al Rihla Official Match Ball, we are able to definitively show no contact on the ball from Cristiano Ronaldo for the opening goal in the game. No external force on the ball could be measured as shown by the lack of ‘heartbeat’ in our measurements. The 500Hz IMU sensor inside the ball allows us to be highly accurate in our analysis.”
While the dust disturbed by that incident was still stirring, alongside other decisions by the Video Assistant Referee (VAR), which have led to even more questions about controversial decisions, Thursday night’s ball-over-the-line debate sparked into flame.
It was only the latest in terms of VAR decisions that have been questionable, such as Antoine Griezmann’s disallowed late equaliser against Tunisia for France; Argentina’s VAR-awarded penalty after Wojciech Szczesny appeared to gently brush Lionel Messi’s face with his hand; or the lack of a penalty after England’s Harry Maguire was wrestled to the floor against Iran.
Thursday’s issue appeared to spark even more debate than these others. It came about when VAR allowed Japan’s second goal against Spain on Thursday evening to stand, even though, to the naked eye and some angles of the replay, it appeared that the ball had crossed the line and gone out of play. The resulting goal ended up sealing Japan’s qualification, effectively knocking Germany out of the tournament.
Japanese midfielder, Ao Tanaka, scored in the 51st minute to make it 2-1 to Japan, following a cross by Kaoru Mitoma. But, in the process of working for the goal, it seemed the ball crossed the goal line and that should have been given to Spain as goal kick instead of letting play continue for the goal. What became the crux of contention was the question of what the applicable FIFA rule was.
The terminology of the rule to determine whether the ball is out of play reads: “A goal kick is awarded when the whole of the ball passes over the goalline, on the ground or in the air, having last touched a player of the attacking team, and a goal is not scored.”
With this knowledge, it is easier to address the situation fairly to know exactly whether the ball crossed the line or not, keeping in mind that camera angles can be deceptive and perspectives can change viewpoints.
Due to the fact that the novel Adidas tracking technology in the ball, which is excellent as part of the semi-automated offside system, but is not used to track when the ball is in play, there was every reason to turn to VAR to determine if the ball should remain in play. The VAR officials ultimately instructed the referee, Victor Gomes, to award the goal because they had seen an angle that showed that the ball had not wholly crossed the line.
The slightest fraction of the curvature of the ball being above the line is sufficient for it to be deemed still in play because the ball is not a straight line. Some portion of the curve can remain within the line even if the rest of it has crossed past and there is some green grass between the ball and the white end line. Camera angles that offered a bird’s eye view seemed to show that the ball hadn’t done this; that a sliver of it still hovered above a sliver of the line.
Some pundits and analysts were certain the ball should have been called for a goal kick and the goal not allowed to stand, a result that had the potential to keep Germany in the competition, with undertones of a covert campaign to see Germany exit early but, ideally, Germany had no one to blame for their departure but themselves.
The official match ball for the first-ever World Cup in the Arab world is called the Al Rihla, which means “the journey” in Arabic. It is reportedly the fastest-moving ball in the tournament history, according to FIFA, while the name is thought to be a nod to a travelogue made by the traveller Ibn Battuta, who explored Asia, Europe, and Africa in the 14th century.
Sustainability was a top concern for the designers when creating the Al Rihla World Cup ball. This makes it the first World Cup ball to be made exclusively with water-based inks and glues. FIFA noted that the ball’s striking and brilliant colour was inspired by Qatar’s culture, architecture, famous boats, and flag after it was unveiled in March. There, the world football governing body claimed that the ball’s CRT core and speedshell are its two key design elements. The core offers maximum form and air retention, as well as rebound accuracy, allowing for fast-paced action and precision. The speedshell is a unique 20-piece panel shape made of textured polyurethane skin that enhances accuracy, flying stability, and swerving.
In this World Cup, FIFA employed semi-automated off-side calls for the first time. It tracks the ball with 12 specialised tracking cameras positioned underneath the stadium’s roof and calculates the precise position of each player on the field by collecting up to 29 data points from them 50 times per second. As an Inertial Measuring Unit (IMU) sensor is positioned in the centre of the ball, Al Rihla offers an essential component for the detection of tight offside events. The kick point can be detected with extreme precision thanks to this sensor, which transmits ball data to the video operation room 500 times per second. This has come in handy in the detection of offsides by the merest fractions.
It is the most innovative the World Cup ball has ever been from the origins of the competition in 1930. Adidas began designing balls for the World Cup in 1970. Their first was called the Telstar and they used it again in 1974. In 1978, Adidas switched to the Tango and used the design again in 1982. The Tango design formed the blueprint for the next five FIFA World Cup footballs. The World Cup saw the first fully synthetic football in 1986 with the Adidas Azteca ball, which was succeeded by the completely water resistant Etrusco Unico in 1990. In 1994, Adidas introduced a high tech ultra high energy-return layer of white polyethylene foam to give the ball a greater performance. In the next world cup, France 1998, the fanciful Tricolore was introduced and for the first time the world saw a multi-colored official match ball for the competition.
The Fevernova ball was what Adidas supplied for the 2002 World Cup. It had a finely tuned syntactic foam layer, which gave the ball better performance qualities. In 2006, it was the turn of the Teamgeist, a ball that had a figure-8 design, resulting in fewer joins and more flat space, increasing the likelihood that a foot strike would land on a soft spot on the ball. Then followed the heavily controversial Jabulani, the name of the official match ball for the South Africa World Cup in 2010. In the South African isiZulu language Jabulani meant “bringing joy to everyone”. Eleven colours were present on the design, one for each player. Eight thermally bonded polyurethane panels were used throughout the construction of each ball, making them nearly waterproof. The very flawless sphere’s inside stitching caused it to not function as planned for the players, leading to numerous complaints throughout the 2010 World Cup. In 2014, Adidas supplied the Brazuca for the World Cup in Brazil with several significant design advancements, most notably six identical “boomerang”-shaped panels, which are just a few fewer than the Jabulani. And, at the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia, the official match ball was the Telstar 18 because it looked like the first Telstar communications satellite.
Not many have complained about the ball this time around but it is probably too early to call as much more can be controversial in the days that follow. Still, the round leather will continue to roll with excitements, upsets and victorious sure to come in Qatar.