How the Jabulani spoiled the 2010 World Cup

7 Jul

This year’s football World Cup hasn’t exactly been an exercise in precision has it?

It’s time to officially blame the Jabulani ball.

The shiny new number, famous for dipping on unsuspecting goalkeepers, is oddly constructed with just eight panels instead of the traditional 32. Apparently the architects were looking for a marketing angle instead of performance.

Following weeks of criticism, scientists around the world recently tested the ball – interestingly as the World Cup draws to a close – and concluded that its fewer panels and internal stitching make it as close to a perfect sphere as a ball has ever been. So mission accomplished, I guess.

Imperfect spheres in sports like tennis, golf and cricket provide those games their unique characteristics, where the trajectory and bounce, and players’ reactions to such movements, are part of the romance of each sport. The same is true of soccer, if not even more so.

I’ve had an affinity with the soccer ball – the real ball, that is – since I was five years old. While many other kids were busy hoofing the ball up field or showing their parents how hard they could tackle, my brother and I methodically dribbled in and out of witches hats, juggled up and down the field and prodded the ball around the pitch until we collapsed into a heap of sweaty polyester and Lotto leather. Mastering the ball, imperfect as it was, is what fuelled our passion for the sport.

Watching soccer today, we love to see others work with the ball, control it and conquer its nuances. You only have to study Lionel Messi or Arjen Robben to appreciate how a soccer ball can move – its size, weight and texture, each contributing to the beauty of its roll.

However, this Jabulani simply doesn’t move the way a soccer ball should. It has unquestionably undermined the art form’s best technicians and reduced the “beautiful game” to a game of chance. Certainly goalies have struggled, as the Jabulani dips and wavers toward goal, never really settling on a flight path. But it is, in fact, attackers who have even more reason to gripe. Consider the countless skewed free kicks, wayward crosses and loose penalties lofted over the crossbar this tournament. There have been some unusually embarrassing moments to say the least.

We’ve heard the commentators lament the weird texture of the new ball and how it seems to sway in the air, sometimes stopping but rarely spinning as a soccer ball should. We’ve also heard players tell the press they can’t predict which way the ball will ultimately travel, making passes difficult to anticipate.

But how does this all affect the fan watching at home?

Well, when your favourite midfielder tries a long ball, the Jabulani doesn’t sit up, but instead skids off the grass as if on ice, leaving the intended recipient little chance of tracking it down. Or when the world’s best wing-back pushes a routine short delivery to the central midfield, he often misjudges the ball’s weight, tapping it to a charging opponent like an overly inflated beach ball.

The Jabulani clearly hurt the masters of the short ball, Italy, at this World Cup, disrupting the flow of their normally elegantly timed offensive build-ups. Countries that traditionally revel in the long pass, like England and Australia, suffered too. Neither team caught the Jabulani’s drift. I wonder how David Beckham would have fared?

Jabulani supporters might point to Brazil’s Robhino, Uruguay’s Diego Forlan or Spain’s David Villa, and highlight their outstanding open field runs during this Cup. To that I say, sure, there have been some strong moves, and even a few impressive finishes. But they’ve been few and many of the better goals have simply illustrated why it’s so difficult for keepers to read the ball’s flight.

Soccer is a game that requires great anticipation and it’s the sport’s supreme anticipators who usually dominate the world stage. These football experts have been painfully handicapped this 2010 Cup, forced to relearn their touch and regauge their natural instincts. And in turn, we’ve been delivered a weaker soccer product than deserved.

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