London 2012: Soccer Aerodynamics

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Corner kicks and free kicks are tough to defend in football (soccer for Americans) because the ball’s trajectory can curve in a non-intuitive fashion. Known as the Magnus effect, the fluid dynamics around a spinning ball cause this curvature in the flight path. When an object spins while moving through the fluid, it drags the air near the surface with it. On one side of the spinning ball, the motion opposes the direction of freestream airflow, causing a lower relative velocity, and on the opposite side, the spin adds to the airflow, creating a higher velocity. According to Bernoulli’s principle, this causes a lower pressure on the side of the ball spinning with the flow and a higher pressure on other side. This difference in pressure results in a force acting perpendicular to the direction of travel, causing the unexpected curvature in the football’s path. In the case of the corner kick above, the player kicks the ball from the right side, imparting an anti-clockwise spin when viewed from above. As the ball travels past the goal, air is moving faster over the side nearest the goal and slower on the opposite side. The difference in velocities, and thus pressures, creates the sideways force that drives the ball into the goal even without touching another player. The same effect is used in many other sports to complicate play and confuse opponents. In tennis and volleyball, for example, topspin is used to make the ball drop quickly after passing the net.

ETA: Check out this other great example of a free kick sent in by reader amphinomos.

FYFD is celebrating the Olympics by featuring the fluid dynamics of sport. Check out some of our previous posts including the flight of a javelin, how divers reduce splash, and what makes a racing hull fast.

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