We know the score. Each World Cup brings a new football: smoother; better; faster; stronger, to misquote Daft Punk (they’re in Adidas’ Cantina ad as well). Jabulani is the sportswear firm’s 11th Official World Cup ball and it’s come in for a bit of a beating ever since that freak goal/blunder–depending on which side of the Atlantic you reside–during Saturday night’s match between England and the USA.
Both Robert Green, England’s goalkeeper, and Fabio Capello, the team manager both blamed the ball for Clint Dempsey’s strike to bring the scores level (it doesn’t really stand up when you watch a replay, as the goal was a scrappy little thing). It is, however, interesting to see just what some of the players in South Africa think of Jabulani. Brazilian midfielder Felipe Melo describes it as “a spoiled little rich kid, who doesn’t want to be kicked in any way.” His take on Jabulani’s predecessor, will have metaphor fans screaming the house down. “The other ball is like a nagging woman: you kick her and she’s still there.”
While most of the players contracted by Adidas (Lionel Messi, Frank Lampard are just two) have given Jabulani pretty favorable write-ups (insert Mandy Rice-Davis defense here, please) it’s the keepers we should be listening to. Lampard’s Chelsea teammate, Petr Cech gives it the thumbs-up. “It is nice to catch. It feels good in the hands as well as kicking, it has a good control when I try to kick it,” he says. Spain’s keeper, Iker Casillas, describes it as “poor,” while David James, Green’s rival for the England goalie jersey called it “dreadful. It’s horrible, but it’s horrible for everyone.”
Spanish right-back Alvaro Arbeloa takes a more simple approach. “It’s round, like always,” he said.
Adidas released a statement today that put the blame firmly at Robert Green’s feet. “We believe it was down to a massive goalkeeping mistake, and Green should look at his own positioning as the ball came towards him.” Andy Harland, lecturer in Sports Technology at Britain’s Loughborough University, and one of the men behind the design of Jabulani, merely replied, “Don’t blame me or the ball.”
If you’ve ever wondered why golf balls have dimples, cricket balls have stitching, and tennis balls have the weird rubber road running round its hairy exterior, wonder no more, as the science website Physorg explained last week. Surface roughness creates turbulence around a fast-moving ball, which stabilizes the ball. The slightest change in the exterior surface of a ball–from panels, to stitching, to grooves–will change the way that it flies. Hence defenders having to rethink their timing for heading balls, goalies needing faster reaction times (or, in Green’s case, adhesive-dipped gloves) and strikers needing to put more spin on the ball.
The testing of Jabulani was rigorous, using both a kicking robot and a wind tunnel. Its extreme smoothness adds to its unpredictability in flight, which means that, once a forward has worked out just how to bend it, it should do more or less what they want it to–depending on the altitude. The higher the altitude of the stadium, the faster the ball will fly, which explains the goalkeepers’ complaint about unpredictability. “This ball encourages players to go for more extreme shots, because they have higher confidence that the ball does what they want it to do.” says Adidas’ Hans-Peter Nurnberg.
In a statement to Fast Company, the sportswear firm said, “Since December 2009, the Adidas Jabulani has been used at the highest professional level in Germany, the Netherlands, France, Austria, Russia, Switzerland, Argentina and the South African premier league.” It’s worth noting that, of all those teams, Germany, Holland, Argentina and South Africa have already played their first matches. All of them won, apart from South Africa, who drew.
It’s all a matter of practice, then. All nations in the World Cup were given the Jabulani back in February. The smart nations exercised their right to do so. The dumber ones, or those who had contracts with other ball manufacturers–in England’s case, Umbro–probably didn’t get enough boot time with it before the start of the tournament.