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FIFA World Cup: ‘Lighter, faster’ Al Rihla ball blamed for lack of direct free kick goals

Only two such efforts successful in Qatar till date, as the round object becomes topic of discussion again, like at previous editions

Morocco's Achraf Hakimi, left, kicks a free kick during the World Cup round of 16 soccer match between Morocco and Spain. (AP)
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FIFA have introduced a new match ball that’ll be used for the 2022 World Cup semifinal and final. Barring the outside design, Al Hilm which translates to ‘The Dream’ in Arabic has the same make and technology as Al Rihla (The Journey), which was used in the tournament so far. A World Cup match ball that has faced a fair share of criticism.

The number of goals scored from direct free kicks has dwindled considerably at the Qatar World Cup. Fans had to wait till the final round of group-stage matches for the first goal to be scored in this fashion.

England’s Marcus Rashford was the player who broke the free kick jinx in Qatar when he scored against Wales in the Three Lions’ last group match. His shot was hit with such power and precision that Wales goalkeeper Danny Ward had no chance to stop it from hitting the top corner.

The next night, Rashford’s effort would be improved upon by Mexico’s Luis Chavez against Saudi Arabia. In a list published by FIFA of the most powerful goal-scoring shots registered in the group stage, Chavez’s effort sits pretty at 121.69 km/hr.

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Morocco’s Abdelhamid Sabiri had apparently scored the first free-kick goal of the World Cup in their victory against Belgium, but it was credited to captain Romain Saiss, who was adjudged to have gotten a touch before the ball went into the goal.

Mexico’s players jump to defend against a free kick during the World Cup group C match between Saudi Arabia and Mexico, at the Lusail Stadium in Lusail, Qatar. (AP Photo)

There were six direct free-kick goals at the 2018 World Cup in Russia, but this time around, there have been just two at the time of writing.

Why is it so? Is the new Adidas Al Rihla ball the reason? England right-back Kieran Trippier, who scored one of the most memorable free kick goals at the last World Cup in the semifinal against Croatia, seems to think so.

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He said that the Al Rihla ball feels lighter to kick this time, adding that it felt like it would balloon if too much power was put on crosses and free-kicks.

Switzerland’s Xherdan Shaqiri controls the ball during the World Cup round of 16 match between Portugal and Switzerland. (AP Photo)

“It’s just… I feel it’s a bit lighter,” Trippier was quoted as saying by the Daily Telegraph. “It feels if you put too much power on it, it’ll just fly away, but it’s one of those where we have to deal with that, all of us do. We train with the same ones. It’s a football, isn’t it?!

“Every time I’ve crossed the ball, I’ve felt the balls are a bit different but there are no excuses, really. I would just say the balls are a bit different but it is not the heat or anything. I’m not too sure….maybe it is the players,” the Newcastle United defender chuckled.

Makers’ take

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According to manufacturers Adidas, the ball has a shape that, “improves the accuracy, flight stability and swerve” and that the core is made to maximise air retention and shape. The company also stated that before the tournament, the ball was tested in laboratories, wind tunnels and on the pitch by football players.

Uruguayan goalkeeper Sergio Rochet had echoed this sentiment about the ball travelling faster in a press conference before their first match against South Korea.

“Year after year, it gets better for the strikers and for us goalkeepers, it gets very tough. This is a very fast ball. We are in a process of adaptation,” Rochet had said.

This is not the first time that a World Cup ball has faced scrutiny.

Fevernova, which was used in South Korea and Japan in 2002, was branded “ridiculous kiddie’s bouncing ball” by Italy goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon while Germany legend Oliver Kahn said that the heavier Teamgeist ball used at the 2006 World Cup was designed to aid strikers.

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However, the most ‘infamous’ ball, whose name is still whispered unfavourably in football circles, is the 2010 Jabulani. Spain goalkeeper Iker Casillas had compared it to a beach-ball while England ’keeper David James had called it “dreadful”.

Even outfield players, who the ball was supposed to be assisting, found it pretty difficult to control. Japan’s Marcos Tulio Tanaka had described the ball as “difficult for defenders to deal with” and Italy striker Giampaolo Pazzini had said that the new ball was a disaster for strikers. “It’s fast and it weighs less than a normal ball,” he felt.

First published on: 07-12-2022 at 16:15 IST
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