By Paul Gardner
Honestly, I would not have thought this was possible. How on earth could the pre-tournament complaints about this World Cup's new ball get any more strident, any more stupid than those for previous events?
I was quite sure we’d exhausted all the possible depths or heights of imbecility known to man. Nothing, I was quite certain, could possibly surprise me any more. I was wrong. The fatuous comments on the new adidas Jabulani ball have gone beyond anything I thought possible. We have moved into total fantasy -- so far in, that not even Alice, in her disjointed trips through Wonderland, ran across this sort of madness.
I started taking an interest in these new balls at the time of the 1994 World Cup. I see the first records that I saved were of a new ball in Argentina in 2000, the Penalty World Stability -- which, the manufacturers claimed, would result in more goals being scored. This, apparently, in response to a request from FIFA for more scoring. It did not have any effect on scoring.
That same year, adidas introduced a new ball for the Euro 2000 tournament, accompanied by stories about it moving “all over the place” (that was England coach Kevin Keegan), and a claim that “it moves so quickly and seems to dip suddenly” (England assistant coach Les Reed).
When Euro 2000 was over, the English Premier League started up with a new Nike ball, the Geo Merlin, which was greeted breathlessly -- “I think we'll see shots from greater distance, more excitement.” (Admittedly, that was the ball’s designer speaking).
Next came the Adidas Fevernova, the official ball for the 2002 World Cup. “Nobody likes this ball,” said French defender Mikael Silvestre. Other players joined in: “Too light”; “the worst ball I've ever played with, it’s as light as a balloon and bounces out of control”; “you cannot send it where you want it to go.” David Beckham said it was great.
And so, at a comparatively minor level, the tradition of dumb new-ball comments was born. It needs pointing out that once the tournaments concerned get under way, the alleged glitches are forgotten, and never mentioned again.
And the scoring rate never goes up. Usually, it goes down. This doesn’t bother anyone. On we go -- to Euro 2004, and the new Adidas ball, the Roteiro, which was instantly trashed by the Spanish coach -- “It's horrible, difficult to control and to pass.” “It's like a beach ball,” added one of his players. Beckham thought it was great: “I can rely on the ball to go exactly where I want it to go.”
Next up, the Nike Total 90 Aerow, which made its debut in the EPL in late 2004. The comments were getting quite remarkably stupid. Said ex-Arsenal keeper Bob Wilson: “The ball now goes either to the right or left, or up, or down, and there's no way you can judge which way it will go.” Nike joined in with some startling news about the ball: “we've tried to make it as round as possible,” and then added the now-standard claim that “the mission is to bring more excitement to the game.”
In fact, throughout this whole farce, the various manufacturers have repeatedly come up with explanations of quite childish stupidity. We proceed, to Germany and the 2006 World Cup, and the new Adidas Teamgeist. First up -- a goalkeeper of course: "It's a nightmare, an absolute nightmare. There's going to be a lot of goals when the World Cup starts.” Here’s another goalkeeper’s technical observation: “"It gets very slippery and flutters in the air.” As for more goals, the scoring rate in Germany slipped down to the second lowest ever at a World Cup.
At Euro 2008 the Adidas Europass ball entered the fray, to be greeted as usual by howls of protest. From a Polish player: “It can change from moving left to right at every moment ... it does weird things.” By now true paranoia had set in among the goalkeepers: Portugal’s Ricardo moaned despairingly: “Everything that is new in soccer today is to hurt us. Nothing is done for our benefit.”
There was just time in the fall of 2009 for Spanish goalkeeper Iker Casillas to call the Champions League ball “a complete disaster,” before the Jabulani appeared, the Adidas ball for the 2010 World Cup. The Adidas boffins got in first, touting a “radically new technology” (all new balls have that) meaning that -- yet again -- everything was well-nigh perfect in the structure of the new ball, and that “It's more attractive for the spectator ... and [adds] more confidence for the player because they have higher chances to make a score."
To which Brazil’s goalkeeper Julio Cesar replied that the Jabulani is “Like something you buy in a grocery.” The level of discourse has sunk even lower since then. Casillas has had his say, calling it a ball of “appalling condition.”
Blatant nonsense has arrived, with Italian goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon claiming that, with the Jabulani, even an accurate passer like Andrea Pirlo could be as much as three meters off target. More fantastic still was the comment from Italy striker Giampaolo Pazzini: “It moves so much ... You jump up to head a cross and suddenly the ball will move and you miss it ...”
If we are to believe all of that, then it’s clear that despite the Adidas insistence that “the ball is much more accurate” (something else, incidentally, that is always said) we are in for an absolutely slapstick, Charlie-Chaplinish World Cup -- for the first week, maybe, followed by an embarrassed change of ball.
Well, that won’t happen, I can assure you. Firstly, marketing and sponsoring considerations would never permit such a travesty. Secondly, I know it won’t because I just finished watching two World Cup warm-up games, 180 minutes of soccer using the Jabulani. And nothing weird or fantastic to report. No goalkeeper confusion, no passes doing funny things, no sign of the ball fluttering or turning right angles in the air, no complaints from anyone, not even goalkeepers.
And thirdly because the stakes have been raised in this ball scenario. Raised to a point I had not envisaged, where everything I’ve written above must be disregarded. It seems we are no longer talking about a mere soccer ball, and certainly not about something from a grocery store.
As World Cup organizing committee chief Danny Jordaan explained when the Jabulani was unveiled: “This ball will unify us in this country. It carries a lot of hope for the future of this country.”