Mixed response to Jabulani ball

The Jabulani ball which has been designed by Adidas for use in the World Cup has been something of a first in terms of technology. However, the use of synthetics instead of the traditional leather, along with an aero-pocketed design known by the manufacturer as ‘Grip n’Groove’ has led to a noticeable change in the impact upon striking the ball as well as its behaviour thereafter.

While some have seen this as a positive change, there are arguably more who have suggested that the new ball is akin to playing the World Cup with one of those flyaway ‘Shoot’ balls you could buy from a corner shop for £1 and use for the whole summer (at least until it went into a bush at which point it burst instantly.) Designed at the Loughborough University wind tunnel as well as the Scheinfeld Adidas facility, there are at least some nice points about the Jabulani ball on a cosmetic level on which the response can be universally warm. Jabulani means ‘to celebrate’ in the Bantu language of South Africa. It is apparent that 11 is a key number here also – there are 11 languages in South Africa, 11 tribes in the country, this is the 11th ball commissioned for the World Cup and there are of course 11 players in a football team. This recurring theme is denoted by the 11 different colours which appear on the ball at some point. Whether it is any more than a pretty face is a more contentious issue.

The ball is a break from tradition on a number of levels. Firstly, the use of synthetics is some way from the leather with which footballs have been associated for well over a century. Having said this, the developments in ball technology in the last 50 years have seen us move away from the medicine balls of the 1950s to products that could be considered ‘leather in name only’. A requisite change in the way the ball is shaped is the new material being held together in eight bonded sections rather than the 14 hand-stitched hexagons or pentagons that have been seen on previous balls. The official blurb from Adidas is that this makes the ball ‘more round’ than previous ones, which makes David Beckham’s previous feats in swerving a hexagonal ball around the wall even more impressive. Becks contributed his own praise of the ball at the launch saying, “Adidas have always produced the best balls. Technology – number one. Style – number one, and they produce the best balls in the world.”

To his credit, he did admit to being in a “biased” position before making these comments and perhaps accolades of the new ball should be tempered by looking at the endorsement contracts of the players involved. Of those, Michael Ballack described Jabulani as “Fantastic, the ball does exactly what I want it to,” Frank Lampard described it as “A very strong ball, true to hit” and Kaka was equally lavish in his praise: “For me, contact with the ball is all-important, and that’s great with this ball.”Petr Cech’s comment that, “you can feel the energy coming towards you, like a shot” is interesting considering the strong feelings against the ball from the goalkeepers’ union.

It is perhaps understandable that if a ball can swerve and dip as though the striker has a remote control (Ballack himself hints in this direction) then goalkeepers are going to be most alarmed at the prospect of sudden movements in mid-air and the goals that result. Julio Cesar picks up the ‘Shoot’ analogy, “It is terrible, horrible. It is like one of those balls you buy in the supermarket. The danger for goalkeepers is when they come off their line they need to stay in a safe place otherwise the ball will drop behind them (and into the goal).” The thought of a sequence of goals a la Ronaldinho vs Seaman in 2002 is indeed unsettling, especially if one of them decided the eventual winner. Iker Casillas’ feelings on the subject could not have been made more clear, “It is truly sad that we have to play in a World Cup with such a horrendous ball.”Gianluigi Buffon described the ball as “horrendous” while Claudio Bravo of Chile laments what he sees as “a ball made to prejudice goalkeepers.”

The new ball could well prove decisive in penalty shoot-outs as it boomerangs its way past a helpless keeper, or suddenly swerves wide. Fabio Capello has already added his name to the list of Jabulani detractors, drawing attention to its erratic behaviour at altitude. “I have seen that the ball arrives really fast and the players are having problems controlling it. For the goalkeepers it is terrible because it is always moving. For this reason every training session ends with shooting practice at the keepers, to prepare the players for the movement of the ball.” This is re-assuring, objective evidence to those worried keepers that they are not being paranoid, or merely making their excuses early. The truth is that while altitude is an unavoidable geographical quirk that needs acclimatisation, a football should not have to be.

Anyone who has scored an outrageous cartoon-swerve goal on one of the FIFA or ISS video games will know that the instant reaction is to laugh out loud, in the knowledge that the event would never happen in real life. Let us hope for the integrity of the tournament that this remains the case.

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