Stepping into the Sports Technology Institute at Loughborough University is like entering Q’s laboratory. It looks like something straight out of James Bond, but the reality is far more exciting than any fictional film.
This is where adidas’s 2010 World Cup ball, the Jabulani, was developed.
England’s Jermain Defoe with the ball developed at Loughborough
Licensed to thrill: England’s Jermain Defoe with the ball developed at Loughborough
In the corner lurks the iRobot, a £40,000 yellow limb that can replicate human cycling, walking or running. Only two people have a key to the machine and £40,000-worth of security protects it – from itself. The robot is strong enough to break down the walls of its enclosure.
In another Perspex cage is the kicking robot. It is accurate to within fractions of a millimetre and can replicate the same kicking motion 600 times a day at more than 100mph.
The University’s Department of Aeronautical and Automotive Engineering houses a £250,000 wind tunnel. The ball is held by a steel shaft in gusts of 70mph to assess how wind affects its movement and rotation.
The idea was to give the player maximum control. Dr Andy Harland and his team – including 27-year-old Dave Rogers, who is writing a PhD on the subject – spent two years researching the aerodynamics of a football.
England are training with the ball at their Austrian camp and have voiced the usual concerns about its movement and speed in the air, but Dr Harland insists it is fairer than predecessors. ‘We’re hoping you won’t see a poor player take a pot-shot from 35 yards and get lucky,’ he said.
Heading skyward: Chris Waddle hits England’s final penalty in Turin
‘You’re going to see good players score good goals and if the ball misses the target it should be the player’s fault now.
‘Take Chris Waddle’s penalty for England in the 1990 World Cup. We know that a ball from that era would find a range of targets if you twisted it different ways and kicked it at the top corner. I’m not saying Waddle would have scored with this ball, but it would have gone where he actually kicked it, whereas with the old ball you could never have been certain.’
The Jabulani, which means ‘to celebrate’ in Zulu, has a band of 11 colours representing 11 players in a team and the 11 South African tribes. The ball for the final, the Jo’bulani, will have a gold band. It is made of natural latex and woven fabric, with eight foam rubber panels – adidas’s 2006 World Cup ball, the Teamgeist, had 14.
Having fewer reduces cost and means less can go wrong in production, but affects the ball’s stability in the air. Think of a large, smooth beach ball. Its movement is unpredictable, and not just in the case of Darren Bent’s goal against Liverpool.
To compensate, the team invented ‘aero grooves’ to ‘churn up the air’ and covered the ball with tiny dimples to give it more grip, which will particularly benefit goalkeepers.
Ultimately, a spherical ball is never going to behave in a completely uniform manner. ‘The laws of physics will tell us that, as long as the ball is round, it’s going to be liable to some crazy effects,’ said Dr Harland. ‘All we can do is minimise them.’
Whether England can use the Jabulani to their advantage remains to be seen, but at least one Englishman will play a part in the World Cup final on July 11.