Adidas creates a new ball for each World Cup. It’s not uncommon for these balls to draw complaint, especially from goalkeepers since each ball seems faster than the one created four years prior. This Cup’s ball, known as the Jabulani, seems poor in several respects and uniquely bad in one critical way.
I don’t mean the 8 panel construction, the rubbery material or the dimples. Those are likely the reasons why the ball behaves as it does, but I don’t care particularly of what it’s made. It can be one big ball of yarn for all I care as long as it works consistently in a way that players with years of experience at the highest level of the game and in a way that fans of the game all expect. Jabulani fails badly in this crucial test.
Thanks to a wealthy benefactor in our local soccer group—these things cost $150 each and a perfectly adequate ball can be had for $30—I’ve played with a Jabulani “Match Ball” twice. On the ground, it’s excellent. As long as you keep it on the carpet, I don’t think you can have many complaints. Where it really gets into trouble is in the air.
It flies easily, perhaps more than any other ball I’ve used. All the overhitting from the wings and keepers missing crosses likely spring at least somewhat from this. The ball just travels further. This isn’t terrible by itself since players can adjust and just not hit the ball as hard. It’s not a great or useful change, but it’s not show-stopping.
The ball is also faster, more lively, than most. FIFA and fans generally like this sort of change since lively balls usually mean more scoring. It’s hell for goalkeepers, of course, but given FIFA’s (and Adidas’) history, one really can’t think that goalkeepers are consulted when it comes to what happens with new balls. FIFA (and fans) have a preference, again generally, that the ball end up in the back of the net, and keepers stand in the way of that (obviously). As much as keepers dislike the speed, even a faster ball isn’t a disqualifying factor for a new ball.
But what is show-stopping and is disqualifying is the inability of anyone to firmly control the Jabulani in the air, particularly over a distance of 20 yards or more. It may—and I want to emphasize may—go exactly where it’s hit, or it may move around like a Belly dancer just given a $100 tip. In other words, it is a ball that has no consistency in the air, and that is show-stopping. Dunga, Brazil’s coach, rather famously argued with FIFA before the tournament that they should come out to the pitch and try for themselves to control the Jabulani. FIFA officials wisely declined. Because if Team Brazil, who house some of the most technically accurate ball control specialists in the world of soccer, can’t control the damn thing and you can be sure that nobody can.
I wasn’t much on the receiving end of long, in the air passes the first time I played with the Jabulani. What I noticed was that it was good on the ground, fast, and flew long when I hit it. I didn’t understand the hubbub. I was, however, on the receiving end a couple of times during the second occasion I had to play with the ball, and it was impossible to predict where the thing would end up. It knuckled in the air, moving toward me while shifting a foot or more right, left, up and down as it came. There was no predictability to the thing, making it impossible to trap or shoot. Keepers, who already have things to dislike about it, had one more. Strikers and midfielders, who might adjust to the lightness or enjoy the pace of the ball, rightly complained as well. The chaos Jabulani brings is why, and why it should not have been used in World Cup 2010 or be used in any future tournaments.