A couple of weeks ago I talked about the science behind the perfect penalty kick on BBC Radio Cambridgeshire, and lo and behold a few days later the Championship Playoff final went to penalties. I may have jinxed it – sorry. The penalty shootout was actually of a pretty high standard with 7 out of 10 penalties being scored, two saves and only one missing the target. Clearly Reading’s Liam Moore did not listen to my interview…

For all of the footballers out there who have missed penalties recently, I thought I would explain the idea of the science behind the perfect penalty a little further, and in particular the maths equation that describes the movement of the ball. On the radio of course I couldn’t really describe the equation, so here it is:

If you’re not a mathematician it might look a little scary, but it’s really not too bad. The term on the left-hand side, *D*, gives the movement of the ball in the direction perpendicular to the direction in which the ball is kicked. In other words, how much the ball curves either left or right. This is what we want to know when a player is lining up to take a penalty, because knowing how much the ball will curl will tell us where it will end up. To work this out we need to input the variables of the system – basically use the information that we have about the kick and input it into the equation to get the result. It’s like one of those ‘function machines’ that teachers used to talk about at school: I input 4 into the ‘machine’ and it gives me 8, then I put in 5 and I get 10, what will happen if I input 6? The equation above works on the same idea, except we input a few different things and the result tells us how much the ball will curl.

So, what are the inputs on the right-hand side? The symbol *p* just represents the number 3.141… and it appears in the equation because footballs are round. Anytime we are using circles or spheres in maths, you can bet that *p* will pop up in the equations – it’s sort of its job. The ball itself is represented by *R* which gives the ball’s radius, i.e. how big it is, and the ball’s mass is given by *m*. We might expect that for a smaller ball or a lighter ball the amount it will curl will be different, so it is good to see these things are represented in the equation – sort of a sanity test if you will. The air that the ball is moving through is also important and this is represented by *r,* which is the density of the air. It will be pretty constant unless it’s a particularly humid or dry day.

Now, what else do you think might have an effect on how much the ball will curl? Well, surely it will depend on how hard the ball is kicked… correct. The velocity of the ball is given by *v*. The distance the ball has moved in the direction it is kicked is given by *x*, which is important as the ball will curl more over a long distance than it will if kicked only 1 metre from the goal. For a penalty this distance will be fixed at 12 yards or about 11m. The final variable is *w* – the angular velocity of the ball. This represents how fast the ball is spinning and you can think of it as how much ‘whip’ has been put on the ball by the player. Cristiano Ronaldo loves to hit them straight so *w* will be small, but for Beckham – aka the king of curl- *w* will be much larger. He did of course smash that one straight down the middle versus Argentina in 2002 though…

So there you have it. The maths equation that tells you how much a football will curl based on how hard you hit it and how much ‘whip’ you give it. Footballers often get a bad reputation for perhaps not being the brightest bunch, but every time they step up to take a free kick or a penalty they are pretty much doing this calculation in their head. Maybe they’re not quite so bad after all…

A version of this article was also published by the European Mathematical Society.

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