A ball is just a ball, right? Something round, something stitched together. Just a ball. Well, not when the world watches it slice through the air during the World Cup and the company making it calls it the most visible and iconic product—the one they put the most effort into because of the millions of dollars at stake in retail sales—they have produced. Ever.
“Engineering on the ball is through the roof,” says Ernesto Bruce, Adidas’ head of soccer for North America. “Once again we introduced new technology.”
Brazuca, meaning “inherently Brazilian,” has entered the public eye, but it won’t take to a true world stage until June 12 in Arena de Sao Paulo. Having created the World Cup ball every four years since 1970, Adidas brought fresh technology to light for 2014. And this time it has been met with favorable reviews, unlike the 2010 Jabulani version.
For the first-time ever, a soccer ball has only six panels. In 1970, the first Adidas ball went black and white for high visibility for the first World Cup ever televised, but needed 32 panels to do so. By 2006 Adidas had the count down to 14 panels. Jabulani skimmed the paneling to eight. Brazuca offers up six fully symmetrical interlocking and thermally bonded panels that Antonio Zea, Adidas’ head of soccer innovation, tells SI.com create “better aerodynamics and more stable flight through seam geometry.”
The propeller-shaped pieces fit together in a new way. “It has great control and stable flight,” Zea says. “The ball has gotten faster.”
While Adidas would love to reach zero panels, for now Zea says creating a slick-moving ball is all about seam geometry. “What is fantastic,” he says about the new creation, four years in the making, “is it is symmetrical and harmonious.”
But instead of just trotting out the Brazuca months before the World Cup, Adidas has applied a lesson learned from 2010. That year’s eight-paneled ball was faster, but the seaming pattern made its flight movements unpredictable. The ball was criticized widely by goalkeepers for knuckling and by strikers who struggled to control its path. “We added ridges, texturing it for steadiness,” Zea says. “It didn’t work.”
The Brazuca undertook secret testing, both in tournaments, under disguised coloring, and with athletes—including non-Adidas athletes. It also was lab-tested for trajectory and rotation. Now adorned in its true Brazilian color and featuring an all-conditions texture designed to ensure true contact with a player’s boot, the Brazuca has its chance to be more than just another ball.
Tim Newcomb covers stadiums, design and gear for Sports Illustrated. Follow him on Twitter at @tdnewcomb.