Why you should care

This ball will be the center of attention at this summer’s World Cup — and with bold claims that it will revolutionize the game.

On the streets of Sao Paulo and the beaches of Rio Janeiro, futebol is a way of life. Though the game is often played in parking lots and back alleys without football boots or goal posts, and sometimes even without a proper ball, it’s hard to beat Brazilian street soccer for creativity and passion.

This summer, both cities will host the best players in the world. The games will not take place in the favelas but in world-class stadiums instead. And while children in the slums have to make do with tennis balls, tin cans and balled-up socks, the national teams will use one of the most technically advanced soccer balls the world has ever seen: the Brazuca.

Given its $160 price tag, few who voted for it will ever take home the Brazuca.

The World Cup ball is an institution in itself. Since 1970, Adidas has produced a new ball for each tournament, reflecting the evolution of football and the cultures of host nations while advertising to hundreds of millions of viewers worldwide.

The Brazuca is brightly colored to reflect the vibrancy of Brazilian culture, and its design is inspired by the meandering course of the Amazon River. What’s more, for the first time, people from the host nation selected the ball’s name. After more than a million Brazilians voted, the clear winner was “Brazuca,” an informal term that refers to Brazilians living overseas, as well as Brazil’s eclectic way of life. Although, given its $160 price tag, few who voted for it will ever take home the Brazuca.

In terms of construction, the Brazuca occupies an interesting place in World Cup history. It comes on the heels of probably the most controversial ball ever: the South African Jabulani, the ball used in the 2010 tournament. Adidas described the Jabulani as the roundest and most accurate ever. Unfortunately, they were wrong. Confounding even the legendary Lionel Messi — who has been dubbed the greatest player of all time by some — the Jabulani was so erratic in flight that it was widely mocked as a “beach ball.”

So what went wrong? Well, since the first World Cup in 1930, when players were basically tripping over soggy leather lumps, designers have worked to make the ball smoother, lighter and more water resistant. To that end, the Jabulani was hailed as the very best in class. With just eight panels (down from 32 on a traditional ball) and thermally bonded seams, the ball had increased water resistance and reduced drag. Ironically, however, at just 440 grams, it was also too light, making it impossible to control. Adidas, in other words, overshot its goal.

The Brazuca represents a turning point in ball design.

Despite the criticism, the Jabulani was still a commercial success; 13 million were sold, dropping at least $650 million into Adidas’ coffers. This time around, eager to avoid embarrassment and achieve even higher returns, Adidas has produced its most-tested ball ever. For two and a half years, the Brazuca was camouflaged and tested by 600 players, Messi included.

The results?

The Brazuca represents a turning point in ball design. The number of panels has been cut yet again — down to six — and they’re arranged in a never-before-seen formation that Adidas claims will revolutionize the game. Weighing in at 437 grams, it’s even lighter than the Jabulani, but to avoid the beach-ball effect, it’s been designed with deeper seams to standardize flight.

So far, the Brazuca has received glowing reviews, but the players will undoubtedly find something to complain about. The World Cup is stressful for teams and coaches alike, and the ball can be an easy, inanimate scapegoat. But this time the ball is prepared to fight back via its own Twitter account.

Ultimately the pros could learn a lesson or two from Brazil’s street-playing amateurs. Whatever the ball, whatever the setting, it’s possible to play graceful, skillful soccer. But for those who can afford a $160 soccer ball, the Brazuca would look pretty sweet sailing through the sticks.

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