What Players think of the Modern Ball
In the fifth and final article in our series on FIFA's worldwide quality initiative on the manufacture of footballs - the Denominations Programme - we look at the effect the Programme has had on the game itself. Has it improved skill levels? Has the job of match officials been made any easier - and have there been any medical benefits or all-round improvements?
When FIFA's Denominations Programme on football quality kicked-off in January 1996, Joseph S.Blatter, now FIFA President, was unequivocal in his assessment of its effect: "In raising the actual standard of footballs, the FIFA Denominations Programme will also help improve the level of the game," he said.
It was a strong statement - but one which has been borne out in reality. There's no doubt the modern, FIFA-licensed football is more responsive, allowing players to hone and demonstrate their skills to a higher level - confident that a ball with the FIFA mark will react to even the deftest of touches.
That is not just an opinion, it is reflected by the views of the people who really matter - the players themselves. Take England's Michael Owen, who was such a revelation during France 98 - and who is renowned for his pace and running with the ball: "I've noticed an improvement in the quality of footballs, even in the relatively short time since I've been playing at the top level. Personally that's great, because my game's all about skill, speed and the ability to outwit defenders. It means the ball becomes another weapon in my armoury - and that benefits the team too."
The greater responsiveness displayed by the modern ball means it can be controlled with more confidence, as unusual bounces have been eradicated. It is a point supported by Colombia's Carlos Valderrama: "The game now is so fast that you need to kill or stun the ball in a split-second. To do that, you must have a ball that responds to your touch, whether trapping, controlling or passing. Footballs have been unpredictable in the past, so it's good that FIFA is tackling this issue, which is important to top players."
Some of this past unpredictability has been countered by one of the tests under the Denominations Programme, which focuses on shape and size retention. These tests have also helped match officials, such as Paul Durkin, who has been refereeing at top-level since 1987 and has been on the FIFA list since 1994: "I'm aware that as soon as you see a ball with any of FIFA's authorised marks, you simply have to check the pressure and nothing else - although for my own peace of mind, I do like to check its sphericity too. I think if you look at how much players can swerve the ball these days there's no doubt they get greater purchase. There's still a slight variance between how different brands of ball behave, but it was interesting to officiate at France 98, where the same brand was used for every game. The consistency produced by using one brand helped goalkeepers, as they soon got used to how the ball behaved in the air. There's no doubt that the quality of footballs has steadily improved in the time I've been officiating. It's very rare that you have to change a ball these days. I think the Denominations Programme is an effective strategy to ensure the top-quality games are played with top-quality footballs."
Of course in time, FIFA would like to see more and more matches played with balls which have been successfully through the testing programme to further improve the level of play.
"The fact that professionals play with balls bearing the FIFA marks serves as an example, one which will not go unnoticed," says Gerhard Prochaska, Managing Director of ISL Licensing. "In time the message will get across that if you want to aspire to some of the skills of a top player, using a ball that's been through such testing is a key ingredient. The FIFA marks on balls are the most visible expression of the top quality players demand at the highest level."
One skill increasingly displayed at this level is the ability to bend the ball, particularly from free-kicks within striking distance of the goal. It is a skill which Croatia's Robert Prosinecki regularly demonstrates. But as he admits, the ball has played a part: "If you have the technique, today's footballs allow you to put a lot of spin on the ball and move it through the air, like Brazil's Roberto Carlos in the Tournoi de France. I'm very pleased the standard of footballs is being maintained by FIFA - but I'm not so sure some defensive walls will be as happy!"
Better for heading
But the improvement in FIFA-tested footballs provided by the Denominations Programme not only assists players when kicking the ball - it also delivers benefits when heading, as Norway's Tore Andre Flo explains: "For me, power and accuracy from a header are all-important. I need to know that the ball will travel hard and true, whether from two yards or ten. It's important that the ball doesn't absorb any moisture, as balls have done in the past, making them heavier as the game goes on. If the new FIFA tests take account of that, they can only be a good thing."
Indeed they do, as one of the tests concentrates solely on water absorption, with a ball being repeatedly rotated in water, with its 'before' and 'after' weight checked each time. The question of constantly heading a heavy football has come under the medical spotlight in recent times, the reasons for which Dr.Michel D'Hooghe, chairman of the FIFA Sports Medical Committee explains: "It is suspected that repeated blows to the head (collisions or heading the ball) can play a role in the formation of lesions or injuries in the long term. In other words, it is more harmful to sustain regular blows to the head which would, on their own, go unnoticed, than to sustain the occasional, acute and symptomatic injury. The latency of such an injury should also be considered. It is therefore essential to avoid training sessions concentrated purely on heading the ball, as the risks are compounded - as opposed to in a match."
No loss of air
Has the Denominations Programme helped matters? "Obviously it is better to use a high-quality football, such as those which qualify under the Programme - but the difference this makes does not seem to be the prime factor, except if there is a significant increase in contact with the head," says Dr.D'Hooghe.
"I do not believe any research has been carried out as yet - and it would be interesting to find out whether players who head footballs at highspeed sustain head injuries more frequently. What is very important is that young children should only use a very light, foam-rubber ball for practising heading skills to avert the possibility of injury. It must be said that the more skilful the player is at heading the ball, the less risk of injury there is. It's a fair conclusion however to say that heading a modern, water-resistant football is a lot preferable to heading the laced footballs of the past, particularly when they became heavier and heavier during a rain-affected game."
That problem also lead to footballs becoming misshapen, which meant the referee changing the ball. "The testing under the Denominations Programme means that's no longer a problem," says Walter Gagg, Director of FIFA's Sports Division, which oversees the referees' section. "The problem of a ball losing air is also now a thing of the past and the various tests now carried out on footballs in advance have certainly relieved referees of much work before a match."
But for the final word, it has to be back to the players, and given the new FIFA President's initial comments on improving skill levels, who better to comment than Savio, of Brazil and Real Madrid? "I think skills on the ball are still a vital part of the game. Today's footballs respond instantly to a split-second movement or flick. That can look great - but can also be your undoing, because you can't blame the ball when a touch or pass goes wrong!"