How the Jabulani spoiled the 2010 World Cup

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.


What we now know about the 2010 World Cup

One week of the 2010 World Cup down and how are we doing? Picking the upsets? Enjoying the way every airborne ball looks impossible to control? Or how it skids wildly off the grass after landing? How about the horns – is the hum ringing in your ears yet?

Despite some of the oddities of the South African soccer affair, the first week has been a treat for fans around the world. No, the football hasn’t always been faultless, nor has it stunned with the regularity you might expect from the globe’s best players. But there have been some inspired performances and even a few pleasant surprises. The United States, for example, were barely given a chance against the Premier League All Stars of England. And yet, in spite of a fortuitous goal, one couldn’t help but feel America had gotten the better of the Poms. They never dominated, but they probed, strung some passes together and their keeper, Tim Howard, stood tall – well, taller than usual.

Then the US came back against Slovenia, a match that seemed irretrievable. They might have even won it if not for a contentious refereeing decision. And how about the Dutch? While not lighting it up, nor impressing commentators, they are quietly going about their business, dispatching both Denmark and a plucky Japanese squad. Next come the Cameroons, who have nothing to play for but pride. It should be a handy warm down for the men of orange.

So what else have we learned this past week?

  • England, despite their caliber, are under performing, uninspired and apparently without a game plan. Do they even realize Wayne Rooney is on the pitch?
  • Ghana are pretty good, in case you were wondering. They tamed a fierce Serbian team and met a desperate Aussie team with equal measure. They’ll need some extra gas against Germany, but victory and next round qualification are not beyond the prowling Black Stars.
  • Argentina are in control. Their attack is enterprising and Messi’s first touch is mesmerizing. But once they leave the group behind, will defenses be so relenting?
  • Italy have some work to do. The team is stacked with talent, young, old and rusty. The question is: can they blend as needed before it’s too late?
  • New Zealand deserve some praise for their spirit, humility and hard play. Few are on their bandwagon, and yet, their simple, straightforward soccer is attractive and a great base for future campaigns to build on.