Engineering the beautiful game

Written by: Justin Cunningham | Published:

As Euro 2016 comes to a close, we look at the engineering behind the tournaments footballs, and why the beautiful game had to be changed for a fracas. Justin Cunningham reports.

As Euro 2016 has come to an end, it is worth remembering the contribution that engineering has had to the beautiful game, and to its most recent tournament. The Beau Jeu, French for beautiful game, was the official match ball in ever European Championship 2016 game in France, and was developed in partnership by sports manufacturer Adidas and materials specialists Covestro.

The ball celebrated a 30-year partnership between the two companies, and was made this year by a special polyurethane developed for the tournament, which promised to deliver beautiful matches and beautiful goals. The white surface is also decorated in the French national colours, blue, white and red.

The ball was unveiled by French legend Zinedine Zidane in November last year, and in the lead up to the tournament was well received by players, with Wales striker Gareth Bale reportedly telling the mainstream sports press, “I tested Beau Jeu in training with long shots, passes and running at pace. It performed brilliantly. I can't wait for the tournament to start.”

The ball was in development for 18 months and has borrowed heavily from the well received 2014 World Cup ball known as the Brazuca, which was generally loved by players. Beau Jeu still incorporates Brazuca's innovative and widely praised panel shape, but improvements made to the surface structure offer improved grip and enhanced in-flight visibility. The balls’ panels feature a textured surface that is said to surpass the Brazuca in terms of grip during play.

The improved design was said to allow players to more precisely control its movement, but critically was more stable in flight. This meant it avoided some of the sudden, and random, directional changes witnessed in the last World Cup tournament.

The Polyurethane also offers some surface improvements to the outer shell, meaning that pitches when watered before the game and at half time improved the speed and travel of the ball, allowing faster passes and more frenetic play. All of which allowed teams to play enticing football.

The outer shell was developed by Covestro engineers with materials and its production techniques developed for more industrial applications transferred to this application. Thomas Michaelis, project manager for ball development at Covestro explained the process. He said: “The ball’s outer shell consists of a total of five layers based on polyurethane raw materials from our Impranil line.”

The underlying intermediate layer protects the ball against external influences and lends it an unusually high elasticity. Beneath that is a polyurethane foam with millions of microspheres that ensure outstanding flight characteristics. A polyurethane adhesive bonds the top layers to a special polyester-cotton fabric that serves as a substrate.

The ball was also engineered to be durable and last the arduous duration of a vigorous match. However, during a match between Switzerland and France in the initial rounds, a ball burst open when it clashed between the feet of two opposing players.

The coming together just outside the penalty box of Switzerland, and in the middle of the pitch halted play as players and referee gathered around in disbelief. The match was eventually restarted by Switzerland, which ended in a goal less draw. However, this seeming bizarre and unusual event was not something FIFA or fans wanted to be repeated in later rounds.

New design unveiled days after

Whether connected to the burst ball incident or not, FIFA unveiled a new ball by Adidas just days later that would be used as teams entered the knock-out stages of the Euro 2016 tournament. However, it is the first time multiple balls have been used in a European Championship finals and the new artwork features what Adidas call a ‘more disruptive’ red and black design to the clean lines of its predecessor.

The ball known as ‘Fracas’ was said to be have been launched to reflect the excitement of the “winner-takes-all” mentality of the tournament’s latter stages, though it was unclear exactly what changes to the material properties had taken place… if indeed any.

Sam Handy, Vice President of design at Adidas Footballs said: “For Fracas, we wanted to be bold with our design direction and create something that incorporated the emotions felt during the latter stages of tournament football. Beau Jeu was all about tactical football; doing what you had to do in order to get to the knock-out stages. Fracas is a more disruptive design. It represents the noise of the crowd and the excitement around a winner-takes-all mentality on the pitch.”

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