Adidas Smart Ball hands-on: can it level up English football?

We go for a kickabout with football's first intelligent ball – and finally learn how to hit a 'knuckle' shot…
Adidas Smart Ball

English football isn't big on refining technique. Stroll past any local match and the dominant sounds ("away!", "get rid!", "box 'em in!") reveal that skills and possession are still prized more in Fifa than the real world.

So how do we breed players who see the ball as a friend rather than an unpinned grenade? The FA hopes £100 million of grassroots funding over the next three years will do the trick. But going a much techier route is Adidas with its Smart Ball.

Impudent chips

Adidas Smart Ball

The Smart Ball is, as the name suggests, a football that sends performance feedback to your smartphone (it's currently iOS-only, with no plans for Android). It does this via Bluetooth 4.0 and, suspended in its centre, a module that houses an accelerometer and magnetometer.

Despite these unusual innards, the Smart Ball is regulation weight and looks and feels like any other Size 5 ball. That is, apart from the arrows and markings on its skin, which show you which part of the ball to strike for different types of shot.

Set piece specialist

Adidas Smart Ball app

Not that the Smart Ball is capable of serving up Opta-style match analysis – it's very much a 'dead ball' training aid, and one that can only provides feedback when it's struck at least ten yards and one yard above the ground.

While this sounds limited, two things elevate it above gimmick status. The first is the impressive range of stats (how hard you hit the ball, where you made contact, the ball's flight path and its spin in RPM) that are sent almost instantly to the free app.

When used in the app's 'challenges', this can provide genuine insight – the kind nerdier sports like golf consider essential for cultivating what one coach hilariously calls 'unbelievable tekkers' (that's Banterese for 'technique').

More than a game

Adidas Smart Ball app

For example, the 'power challenge', which sounds like an invitation for a punt up to the 'big man', makes you choose a 'target range' of speeds at which to hit the ball in a 'best of five' game. With precise control of a ball's speed also crucial in open play skills like passing, that's a genuinely useful game.

Equally helpful are the 'pro challenges', which ask you to hit precise ball spin RPMs and flight paths to improve your free kicks. After your strike, the flight path is shown next to a pro's perfect arc and a star rating is given. It's basically real-world New Star Soccer, without the option of buying a gold ring afterwards.

Tactics truck

The final feature that helps the Smart Ball transcend gimmick status is the app's new video recording function. This lets a friend shoot a slow-mo video of your kick while it records the stats, letting you examine exactly why the shot arrowed through your neighbour's new greenhouse.

Combine this with 'get better' videos for various skills and a record book that automatically records your best shots, and the Smart Ball becomes a useful training aid and a refreshing change from the usual obsession with shaving grams off boot weights.

First impressions

Adidas Smart Ball app

The problem is that this all comes at a cost of £250 (RM1,354). Though this includes the ball's charging station (a recharge takes about an hour and lasts for around 2000 kicks), it's a bit of step up from buying cones and bibs.

Still, Adidas suggested that a hiring system could become a possibility at local football centres, and even a small grassroots campaign could help promote technique over maxing out your shooting power bar.

We did notice one interesting omission, though – the app doesn't have any challenges or videos related to taking penalties. It seems the Germans are keeping that secret to themselves…

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