Is the ball to blame for a World Cup free-kick goal drought?

Portugal's forward Cristiano Ronaldo - Is the ball to blame for a World Cup free-kick goal drought? - Patricia de Melo Moreira/Getty Images
Portugal's forward Cristiano Ronaldo - Is the ball to blame for a World Cup free-kick goal drought? - Patricia de Melo Moreira/Getty Images

England full-back Kieran Trippier has revealed the Adidas Al Rihla ball used at the World Cup feels lighter to kick during a tournament where players have yet to score directly from a free-kick.

Trippier, 32, scored with a free-kick four years ago in Russia but the number of spectacular set-pieces has been down during the current tournament, with the percentage of attempts down from 2018 and a conversion rate of zero.

While Trippier says the match ball is the same for every player, it has been noticeable that it feels like the Al Rihla will balloon if too much power is put on crosses and free-kicks.

Manufacturers Adidas say it travels faster in flight than any World Cup ball. The 20-piece panel ball has a shape that is said to “improves the accuracy, flight stability and swerve” and that the core is made to maximise air retention and shape. However, the tournament is still waiting for its first direct free-kick goal despite specialists like Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo heading to Qatar.

“It's just... I feel it's a bit lighter,” said Trippier. “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 World Cup match ball has caused controversy during previous tournaments, with the Jabulani in 2010 coming in for criticism from goalkeepers. David James called it “dreadful” and Hugo Lloris labelled it a “disaster”, with others also complaining – despite the boast from Adidas that it was the "roundest ball ever produced".

Kieran Trippier of England takes a free kick - Is the ball to blame for a World Cup free-kick goal drought? - Matthias Hangst/Getty Images
Kieran Trippier of England takes a free kick - Is the ball to blame for a World Cup free-kick goal drought? - Matthias Hangst/Getty Images

“The game is getting faster and, as it speeds up, accuracy and flight stability become critically important,” said Franziska Löffelmann, Adidas’ Design Director. “The new design allows the ball to maintain a significantly higher speed as it journeys through the air. For the biggest global stage in all of sport, we set out to make the impossible possible with radical innovation by creating the fastest and most accurate.”

The Al Rihla also has a motion sensor within it to help with Var decisions, using artificial intelligence to track the ball for offside decisions using Fifa's semi-automated offside technology.

Its technology was tested at the Arab Cup and the Club World Cup 2021 in Abu Dhabi, “with no perceived change to performance” according to the sportswear giants. It was also revealed before the tournament that the ball was tested in laboratories, wind tunnels and on the pitch by football players.

So far the closest that a player has come to a direct free-kick goal was in Morocco’s victory over Belgium when Abdelhamid Sabiri’s effort looked like it had gone straight in at Thibaut Courtois’ near post, although replays showed Romain Saïss got a touch and Fifa awarded the goal to the former Wolves centre-back.

Another part of the game that has seen a decline in numbers is red cards, with only one for a player so far. “I haven’t studied enough of the refereeing to know why,” said England manager Gareth Southgate. “In our game the other night [against USA] the referee had a good tolerance level for challenges and allowed a physical game to flow. On another night there could have been yellows but he managed the game really well.”