Not Exactly Having a Ball

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One can but hope that the 2010 World Cup won’t just be remembered for the quite frankly ridiculous fuss over the vuvuzelas — to which the only sane response is, “you don’t like ’em? Host every World Cup in Europe then” — and the Jabulani ball. Neither controversy is dying down.

If we delve deeper into the latter issue, the latest salvo comes from recently installed Ivory Coast coach Sven-Goran Eriksson, who has called for a summit of the players and fellow managers to debate the arguments surrounding the ball as he wants FIFA to hear their concerns.

Eriksson is speaking out on behalf of the goalkeepers, who have been pretty forthright in their anger over the Jabulani (which ironically is Zulu for “rejoice”). I shall spare you each and every grievance but England’s David James — yet to play in the tournament — has described it as “dreadful” and Italy and Australia’s shot stoppers, Gianluigi Buffon and Mark Schwarzer, labeled it as “unpredictable.” England coach Fabio Capello (who should know better) has even suggested that the ball may have been the reason his goalkeeper Rob Green spilled Clint Dempsey’s shot last Saturday (perhaps telling him he was his number one choice a little more than two hours before kick off was the reason for a visibly nervous Green pre-match, which in turn led to the gaffe).

Over to Sven: “I can understand that goalkeepers are not happy, and I think the authorities should listen to them,” he said. “I think the matter should be discussed. Players, coaches and perhaps top goalkeepers should get together. Especially people should listen to the goalkeepers’ point of view, because the ball isn’t doing them any favors.”

But haven’t we been down this road before? Adidas brings out a new ball in advance of every World Cup and the sequence of events usually follows in the same manner: the goalies moan, a coach chips in with his view and the players take a while to get used to it before normal service is resumed and the earth — and ball — continues to spin on its axis. Wayne Rooney’s comments today in the England presser confirm this: “I think we’re getting more used to it with every day that goes by so hopefully that will help the forwards and midfielders to score more goals throughout the tournament.”

And from where I was sitting yesterday, neither Brazil nor the mighty North Korea had any trouble making the Jabulani bend to their will (Tony Karon’s Brazil post has the goals) and Germany managed to score four goals with it. Indeed, the infamous Jabulani has been used in the German Bundesliga these past few months but before you scream “foul play,” it must be noted that German strikers Klose and Podoloski only managed six between them last season, so they weren’t exactly on fire, form wise. What’s more, the ball was made available in February and was used at this year’s Africa Cup of Nations as well as a number of domestic leagues, including Argentina and the U.S.

Personally, if there are strange deviations going on, I put this down more to the World Cup being played at altitude, which clearly affects the way it can move around. And I would also argue that the lack of goals thus far — at the end of the group games Tuesday, we have seen 23 goals compared to 27 at the same stage four years ago — is due to the cagey manner most sides have approached things this time around, with even Brazil prioritizing winning over entertaining, as Tony points out. The fear of losing your first game — epitomized by Ivory Coast and Portugal playing out a goalless draw — has reigned supreme, as it often does at the beginning (for those of you who remember it, Italia ’90 was not exactly a barrel of laughs when it came to the entertainment stakes.) And while the group stages in Germany threw up some terrific scores, the latter stages were somewhat of a disappointment. A role reversal in South Africa would be reason enough to jabulani.