The New York Times: Profile of the Jabulani World Cup ball

This piece originally appeared in The New York Times Goal blog, on 16 June 2010.  The link is here: http://goal.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/06/16/when-wayward-ball-meets-an-unyielding-defense/

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“When Wayward Ball Meets An Unyielding Defence”

Adidas has heard much mockery of its latest, most troublesome child.  The Jabulani football has attracted all manner of critics, who decry its tendency to move mysteriously in midflight. Goalkeepers have complained in training that it is a difficult customer, a diva even. As far as all members of the anti-Jabulani crowd are concerned, footballs, like children, should be as unobtrusive as possible; they must be seen and not swerved.  That may be true. What’s probable, though, is that the Jabulani just wants to be loved.

We shouldn’t be surprised that World Cup match balls, of which the Jabulani is just the latest narcissistic edition, are seeking more and more attention as the tournaments go by.  For as long as many of us can remember, Adidas has been changing its outfits in an effort to make them more alluring.  Back in 1970, when footballs made by Adidas were far more chaste, the Telstar model had 32 panels.  By World Cup 1990, the Etrusco Unico – sleeker, sexier – was down to 20 panels. In 2006, the Teamgeist boasted a mere 14; and now we have the Jabulani, the most revealing of all, which has just eight.

To these tumbling numbers, we can add another set of stats, falling more slowly, but almost as surely.  In 1970, the World Cup witnessed 3.0 goals per game; in 1990, 2.2; in 2006, 2.3.  At the first weekend of the tournament, the tournament had seen just 13 goals in its first eight matches, on pace for a record low of 1.6 goals per game.

Of course, we can’t exclusively blame this downward trend on the increasingly high maintenance of the World Cup match ball. The growing sophistication of defensive systems has meant that teams are ever smarter at keeping out the opposition. Back in 1930, when World Cup watchers could enjoy an average of 3.8 goals as their reward for turning up to a match, there were just two defenders in a team’s rearguard. Today, the convention is to operate not with a back four, but effectively with a back six: two center backs, two fullbacks, and two defensive midfielders.  (In a sign of the times, even Brazil is doing it.)

At this point, we might even feel sorry for the Jabulani. If, after all, the ball’s primary purpose is to find the net, then it’s being largely frustrated in that aim. Perhaps this explains why, in these early matches, it has flown so wantonly off target, despite the careful attentions of some of the world’s finest forwards.  Maybe it’s not the capricious aerodynamics of a badly designed ball; maybe it’s just the Jabulani’s protest at the global obsession with zonal marking and counterattack.

Whatever the case, one mark is steadily rising: and that’s the tide of cash washing into FIFA’s accounts, which for the first time have seen an annual turnover of $1 billion. It therefore seems that the Jabulani, for all its state of undress, hasn’t harmed the beautiful game’s bank balance at all: despite the low-scoring games, the viewers are still faithfully tuning in.  But it’s worth wondering how many more panels the Adidas World Cup ball can shed, before people start to think that it’s an emperor without any clothes.

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