But Seeler’s statement still stands, because one tends to read it, to understand it, as saying the “key” to soccer. Not a secret then, but a truth -- an often forgotten truth.
Once you start thinking, or rethinking, about the importance of the ball, sooner or later you’re going to take a look at the ball itself -- what it’s made of, how it’s made and so on.
FIFA has rules about this. With the obvious aim of ensuring that the sport, wherever it is played, features a standard ball, Well, at the pro level anyway. Balls must be made of “suitable material.” Which means synthetic plastics these days. If that sounds rather vague, FIFA gets much more specific about size and weight: circumference between 27 and 28 inches, weight between 14 and 16 oz.
Then we get a measurement that puzzles -- the one for air pressure inside the ball. The puzzling thing is the huge difference between the lowest allowable pressure, 8.5 lbs per square inch, and the highest, which is almost double at 15.6 lbs psi. Surely, doubling the pressure would cause a noticeable change in the ball’s behavior? No explanation is offered in the rules, so maybe not.
But there has been a regular undercurrent of complaints about how soccer balls perform. Once upon a time, whenever teams from England went to play in South America (and they never fared very well there) the players would return home complaining about a “light” ball. Difficult to control, they said.
Back in the 1950s there might have been some truth in that. That was the era of leather balls. Which absorbed rain water. Which no doubt made them heavier than they should have been. In sunny South America the chances of a rain-soggy ball were much less likely.
But the rules said nothing about rain fall. That particular problem (or maybe it was just an excuse for poor results) disappeared anyway in the 1970s with the coming of the non-absorbent plastics, the “suitable materials.”
Along with the new materials came a new scientific approach to ball-making. Or did it? This new science of ball-engineering was suspect from the start because it was so obviously linked to the now regular introduction of new and -- always -- “improved” balls. The marketing crew had moved in.
That technology has made improvements in the ball cannot be doubted - the advance from a rather lumpy, laced leather ball to today’s seemingly perfect smooth sphere is remarkable.
But more recent advances -- if that’s what they are -- give off a suspicious whiff of marketing hype. Back in 2000 adidas introduced a new ball for the Euro 2000 tournament. It contained “a liquid gel cushion.” Goalkeepers didn’t like it, claiming it moved so quickly and seemed to dip suddenly.
Two years later, for the 2002 World Cup, adidas introduced the Fevernova ball. No more talk of liquid gel cushions, now it was “gas-filled micro-balloons under a foam layer” that mattered. “No one likes this new ball, especially not the goalkeepers,” said French defender Mikael Silvestre.
The adidas ball for Euro 2004 upped the scientific flavor with an “innovative thermal-bonding production technique” along with “new Power Balance Technology.” The same year, Nike ran into problems in England with a new ball for the Premier League. The impressively named Total 90 Aerow Hi-Vis ball did not impress former England goalkeeper Ray Clemence who claimed “its flight path moves in the last couple of meters.” Which Nike denied.
“A nightmare, an absolute nightmare,” was one goalkeeper’s verdict on the Teamgeist, adidas’s new ball for the 2006 World Cup. The ball had, said adidas, a “revolutionary 14-panel ball construction”, not to mention “a new 1.1 millimeter-thick outer skin, consisting of four layers.” But the marketing influence was showing now -- “The Teamgeist is widely expected to beat all known sales records,” said an adidas spokesperson.
The critics were out in force when adidas came up with the Jabulani for the 2010 World Cup. “Terrible,” said Brazilian goalkeeper Julio Cesar, likening the ball to the cheap plastic ones sold in supermarkets. Italian striker Giampaolo Pazzini called it a “disaster”
Further comments -- from the adidas “director of soccer innovation” -- added the marketing angle: "The official match balls are not an easy product. You're trying to create newness in a product.”
For the Brazuca, introduced by adidas for the 2014 World Cup, there was little criticism. Possibly the realization had dawned that all the much derided balls from the past had not really made much difference or caused any calamitous goalkeeper howlers.
But ... while we await a new adidas ball for next year’s tournament in Russia, here comes coach Pep Guardiola hurling a torrent of soccer ball abuse. His problem was that Manchester City played a game in the Carabao Cup -- the less important of England’s two cup competitions -- against second division club Wolverhampton Wanderers. Not an easy game for Man City -- it struggled to a 0-0 tie. But City finally got its expected win in a shootout.
Guardiola quickly let it be known that Man City’s problems had been because of the ball used. A different one from that used in the Premier League. This one is manufactured by Mitre. “It is too light, it moves all over the place, it is not a good ball,” protested Guardiola. “It is impossible to score with a ball like that. It is not a serious ball for a serious competition. It’s for marketing, money, OK, but it’s not acceptable, all the players complain. It has no weight, nothing.”
But how can this be? The English Football League (organizers of the Carabao Cup) pointed out the Mitre ball is tested in accordance with the FIFA Quality Program and meets the FIFA Quality Pro standard -- “All balls used in the professional game are required to meet this standard”.
Well, balls can vary slightly, within the narrow tolerances allowed by FIFA (apart from the big pressure differences), so it is decidedly puzzling that Guardiola can suddenly encounter a ball that he finds so utterly inadequate. How can it be “too light,” have “no weight”? And how come no one else has complained? The EPL calmly pointed out that “The entertainment provided across last night's games would suggest that the ball is not having a negative impact." (There were five other Carabao Cup games, featuring a total of 18 goals).
It is inconceivable that Guardiola is hallucinating, or inventing the faults he decribes. It seems equally impossible for the Mitre ball not to be meeting the FIFA standards. And it is simply inexplicable that no one else has found that it needs “a miracle” to score with the Mitre ball.
The mystery will continue for a while. Man City, with its shootout win, will be playing in the next round of the Carabao Cup, where the team -- and Guardiola -- will presumably again encounter the dreaded Mitre ball.