As the madness of World Cup passion descends upon Costa Rica, nearly everyone becomes a soccer fan. Francisco Pacheco, however, might be the only Costa Rican who’s more obsessed with the ball than the game.
A 39-year-old lawyer and businessman, Pacheco has spent the past seven years obsessing over the construction of a sphere from squares. A fruit of these labors – though not his final aim – is a specially designed soccer ball he hopes will prove a valuable tool for training corner kicks and free kicks.
If so – and he is in the testing phase of his project now – he hopes that a large-scale soccer ball producer will buy his product, financing his further study into the properties of his sphere.
“My idea is to see what is there, tucked away,” Pacheco said. “I feel that there is more to it.”
Pacheco’s soccer ball, called the Balón Tricolor (Three-Color Ball), in honor of Costa Rica’s three-color flag and nickname of the National Soccer Team, is being launched into the public eye to commemorate Costa Rica’s match against Germany in this morning’s opening game of the 2006 World Cup. The ball features a map of Germany on one side, and a map of Costa Rica on the other, both superimposed over blue and white and a red stripe around the center of the ball.
However, the novelty of this ball is not in its paint job. Pacheco has redesigned the distribution of the panels that compose the ball in a way that when it spins horizontally, the stitching stretches and it becomes wider.
Pacheco compares this to the way that, as the earth spins, more water is pulled to the equator by way of centrifugal force, making the planet wider than it is tall.
The importance of this for the soccer player, Pacheco says, is that it will allow a player to work on a trick shot called a banana kick or a swerve, which is basically making the ball curve as it flies through the air, seemingly defying physics.
Take, for example, a year before the 1998 World Cup in France: Brazil faces France in a pre-World Cup warm-up tournament. The score is 0-0 in the 22nd minute of the game, and Brazil has a penalty shot on the French goal from about 25 yards. The French team has a defensive wall of players between the Brazilian defender who has stepped up to take the kick – Roberto Carlos – and the goal.
Carlos charges and nails the ball with his left foot, sending it off to the right of the goal – way off, to the point where a ball-boy out of bounds ducks, thinking he will be hit. But, in front of astonished viewers and a baffled French defensive line, the ball, as if by magic, swings around mid-air and sails into the goal.
Pacheco explained the complicated physics of why this works by noting that as the ball spins – and it must be spinning horizontally and moving at about 70 miles per hour – the friction of the air against the ball is stronger on the side that pushes forward against the air, rather than backwards with it. This causes the ball’s flight path to curve, as Carlos took full advantage of.
The Balón Tricolor, by way of its stretchiness, benefits this type of kick, he says.
“The theory is, when the ball spins, the panels are going to stretch,” and the ball will curve more, Pacheco said.
In addition, the red band that runs around the equator of the ball acts as instant feedback to the player as to whether the kick went off right. If the kicker nailed it correctly, he or she will watch as it sails through the air, the red line spinning steadily as the ball sinks into the goal in the distance. However, if the kick is bad, and the ball doesn’t spin just right on its axis, the player sees a mess of blue, white and red, and knows he or she biffed it.
“The division of the colors isn’t so coincidental,” Pacheco said.
This, however, is still theory. After years of research, and $50,000 in investment, Pacheco has his design patented in the United States and a manufacturer in Pakistan producing these prototypes.
But what he needs are players kicking his balls.
“We have already been able to test it with the players for the Club de Heredia,” Pacheco said. “They said they liked it, but we need more feedback. We need specialists in free kicks.”
Pacheco is currently looking for more players to test the prototype and is working on methods to record the ball’s movement.
Once he has proved his idea is functional and helps players, he hopes a large-scale brand like Nike will buy his design, and do the rest of the work, leaving him free – and funded – to continue his research into the sphere.
Pacheco’s construction of his sphere involves using what he calls the principal module, which is two squares with their corners folded up, placed on top of each other in a way that they form a small block. When the sides are squeezed slightly, the top surface curves. Eight of these together form a ring, and three rings running perpendicularly to each other form the rough structure of a sphere. More mathematical equations, involving some equilateral triangles, allow for the space in between to be filled, and the ball to be formed.
Pacheco has also made tiny, metal prototypes of these balls, and given them magnets, which allow them to click together in such a way they could be used for chemistry students exploring the structures of molecules and compounds. Or, he adds, they make great children’s toys.
When pressed, Pacheco’s interest in spheres becomes almost spiritual.
“In reality I believe this formation, discovered by playing with these blocks… there is more behind it,” he said. “I think there are more important things, on the level of how things come together. How does this whole mystery work? What I want is to investigate this concept to the very bottom to see what is there, because there are a lot of coincidences. I could take my whole life trying to get this, and I’ll do it, because it is what I like.”