Hooray, the FIFA World Cup season is back! Time has raced around the clock for four years, bringing this football (soccer to those in the US) tournament to the forefront once again. Every match creates a buzz of excitement, anxiety and unbridled enthusiasm across the globe. It is exactly this mix of emotions that needs to be experienced to be able to comprehend the adrenaline rush that draws together football fans and non-fans alike during the World Cup.

World Cup fans sacrifice their time just to keep their eyes on the ball, literally. Many spend sleepless nights to gain insight on the strategies of the different teams – their formations, how they pass, tackle and control the ball. The ball is the essence of the game and the core object of the attention of the players, referee, coaches and fans.

A few years ago, Coca-Cola coined a number of taglines to exemplify the highly engrossing nature of football matches to Malaysians. “Makan bola, tidur bola, minum Coca-Cola (eat football, sleep football, drink Coca-Cola)”, was one of the memorable ones. Again, it was all about the (foot)ball. It is interesting to know that a 410 – 450g ball could have such a great impact on us. However, did you know that this ball is actually the subject of many patents, protecting every improved technical feature of the ball?

Here are a few fairly recent patents relating to the football that caught my attention:

In 2009, Adidas International Marketing B.V. filed a patent (US Patent No. 8517869 B2) for a football enclosing a bladder that overcame previous issues with the structure of the ball and its dynamic requirements, e.g., where a sharp kick would result in the deformation of the ball into a banana-like shape. The bladder within the ball, with connected wiring anchoring the bladder wall, could withstand the forces mentioned above (i.e., a sharp kick) and allow a more stabilised function. It is interesting to note that this component of the ball has been considered in such detail and complexity to ensure that the ball formed is of desired shape, the total weight of the ball is within regulation limits and the ball is able to withstand considerable forces.

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Usually, people’s view of a ball is that it is there simply to serve its purpose (i.e. to be kicked into a goal). Is the colour very important? Does its appearance have any impact on people watching the game? The patent (US Patent No. 8360905 B2) filed by Nike, Inc. in 2004 is an eye opener for me as it protects the casing of the football as defined by enhanced-visibility colours and patterns and proposes that higher visibility of the ball leads to improvement in a player’s response towards the balls in motion (i.e., better  able to estimate location, axis of rotation and/or speed). On top of that, making the balls easier to spot and follow certainly doesn’t hurt the fans’ enjoyment of the game.

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Another innovation that excites me is by Adidas AG. This is apparently the technology that led to the making of the Brazuca, the official match ball for the current World Cup. Adidas AG filed a patent (US Patent No. 8529386 B2) in 2010 for the outer shell of a ball comprising of a plurality of panels, improving the aerodynamic properties of the ball for better precision. I am compelled to watch the World Cup just to study the ball’s motion both on-ground and in-air and see how smoothly it performs. That the flight behaviour of a ball changes due to a surface design made up of panels is quite astounding. Can it be said that its applicability was proven during the match between Spain and the Netherlands, when Robin van Persie equalised for the Dutch team with an impressive and successful flying header into the net, passing one of world’s greatest goalkeepers, Iker Casillas?

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In another patent (US Patent No. 8535185 B2) filed in 2009, the applicant, Cairos Technologies AG, produced a device that could capture information related to a player’s performance during a game. In the past, coverage of a player’s performance was visible via naked eye, with subsequent evaluation done by manual or automatic analysis. This invention does it differently, in a way that brilliantly depicts emerging technology – the invention’s ability to capture information about ball possession, touches (receiving, passing and shooting) and distance a player covers on the pitch mesmerizes me. Each ball is fixed with coils that generate a magnetic field, a pressure sensor and   acceleration sensor, with the football boots comprising of at least one magnetic field sensor and an acceleration sensor that enables connectivity between the boots and ball. An amazingly innovative way to take the game to another level!

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It is interesting that this small, sphere-shape object plays such a key role, not only in  the game of football but also in the livelihood of its players. This one little object has so many patents relating to it (we haven’t even touched on other intellectual property rights such as trademarks, designs and copyrights), and it is only one part of the football game– let’s not forget the gloves, jerseys, socks, kneepads, shorts, and boots that we unfortunately have no space to explore in this article. As players are growing in terms of their talent day by day and the technology applied in their training and in various aspects of the game also grows, we can certainly expect more advancement in the game of football (and in terms of the protectable intellectual property) in the future. Let us see what improvements will be introduced in the ball to be used in FIFA 2018 and beyond