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World Cup Soccer Science: Watch for Rounder Ball, Thinner Air

Players in the World Cup soccer tournament, now underway in South Africa, will have to contend with low oxygen levels at high altitude--and with a new ball, which its scientist creators say is the roundest one ever. Steve Mirsky reports

With the World Cup soccer tournament underway in South Africa, a couple of things for the science-interested audience to watch for. First, the games will feature a new ball, called the Jabulani, the Zulu word for “celebrate.” And some players think something foul is afoot. They contend that the ball doesn’t behave the way a normal soccer ball should, that it even turns the wrong way in mid-air. Adidas, which makes the ball, claims that the players complaining all have contracts with Adidas’s competitors.

The Sports Technology Research Group at England’s Loughborough University designed the ball. The sections aren’t stitched together anymore. Instead, the seams are glued or heat-sealed. The group leader, Andy Harland, told the Telegraph newspaper, “We have created a ball that is almost perfectly round, and more accurate than ever before.” Well, millions of soccer fans will ultimately decide the latter.

Also watch for the effects of altitude. Some of the games in South Africa will be played at elevations over a mile high. Which could make catching one’s breath the primary goal.

—Steve Mirsky

[The above text is an exact transcript of this podcast.]

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