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The Jabulani Virus

Whining about the World Cup ball is almost as old as the tournament itself. During the last Cup in Germany, scientists postulated that it might “unsettle goalkeepers.” In Korea and Japan, the ball was universally deemed too light and bouncy. This year the now typical smattering of complaints began during the final tune up matches, when most teams were given a first chance to get their touches on it—but the whingeing really got started with Robert Green’s blunder against the U.S.

Green, to his credit, refused to blame the ball for his woes, but Capello was not so tactful. And from there the floodgates just seemed to open. The Mexican national team went so far as to make their keepers practice with American footballs in order to simulate the irregular bounce of the new ball. FIFA, of course, promised a full investigation after the tournament. In short, there has been endless moaning about the “new” ball and how it in someway gives their team a particular disadvantage or handicap that no other team seems to suffer from.

The ball in question, Adidas’s Jabulani (which can be yours for a very unreasonable $134.99), is really no different from any other soccer ball. Apart from having comparatively fewer panels and shallower seams (which an enthusiastic scientist at Caltech pointed out might contribute to some irregular laminar flow), it is round, it comes in a variety of sizes, and seems to function as any soccer ball should. According to the Adidas website it has the highest “FIFA rating,” whatever that means. But in the run-up to the Cup teams were bemoaning the ball’s “flight characteristics” and “handling ability”—two terms, which while sounding impressive and complex are as easily quantifiable or subjective as they appear to be. 

So why not just use the same ball in the World Cup that is used in league play? The reason that this is—and will always be—impossible is twofold. First, not all leagues use the same ball, so if they were to choose one league’s model over another’s one can only imagine the griping that would ensue. The second and more important reason is rooted in economics, not soccer. By creating a new ball, Adidas—which have been creating new World Cup balls for the past forty years—has the opportunity to sell the exact same product (a soccer ball) to the exact same people (soccer fans) all over again. 

As any true soccer fan knows, at least half the fun of supporting your team is moaning about the ‘ludicrous’ coaching decisions, ‘lazy’ strikers and ‘blind’ keepers. This is all well and good, but it makes no sense to whinge about something that cannot be fixed and affects everyone equally—which is to say: affects no one at all.