JOHANNESBURG - Hit it and hope seemed to
be the best tactic for long-range shots with the Jabulani World
Cup ball, with forwards and goalkeepers alike expressing concern
at what they saw as its strange and unpredictable flight.
Whether there really was a problem with movement in the air,
or it was all just an optical illusion, the effect was the same
- goalkeeping mistakes and long-range goals but little of the
skill and control we expect at free kicks around the box.
One of the very few goals scored from a free kick near the
area came from Japan's Yasuhito Endo, a perfectly executed shot
that curled round the wall, rose just enough and crept inside
the post in a 3-1 Group E win over Denmark.
Earlier in the same game we had seen a much more common
sight at this World Cup - a swirling 35-metre effort from
Keisuke Honda that bamboozled the goalkeeper with its movement
in the air before flying straight past him.
Endo's goal was by far the better of the two but for most of
the tournament we had to make do with the other kind.
"The ball has simply been too unpredictable," former England
goalkeeper Peter Shilton said in a column written for the
Reuters World Cup website.
"We haven't seen players bending the ball around the wall on
free kicks and not to have that sort of skill on show has been a
Shilton was by no means alone in his criticism of a
seamless, unusually smooth ball hailed by manufacturers Adidas
as "perfectly round".
Craig Johnston, the former Australia international who
became a boot designer after his playing career, was so incensed
he wrote a lengthy open letter to FIFA, packed with negative
quotes from players and explaining in technical detail what he
saw as the ball's defects.
Teams of scientists were also keen to explain just why the
ball might be behaving strangely.
Caltech assistant professor of aeronautics Beverley McKeon,
part of a team that compared the ball to a more traditional
design, said the Jabulani's smoothness could be responsible for
creating less drag and less predictable movement.
"It's very counterintuitive, but the rougher the ball, the
more predictable its trajectory," McKeon told reporters.
Adidas have defended the design of a ball whose
name, Jabulani means "celebrate" in Zulu and plenty of players
at the World Cup have been happy to express their satisfaction.
It is notable, however, that this World Cup saw little of
the breathtaking individual skills we have come to expect from
players such as Lionel Messi, who failed to find the net all
tournament, and Cristiano Ronaldo, who managed one scrappy goal.
"I was surprised that they made such a bad ball for such an
important competition," said Argentina's reserve keeper Mariano
"It doesn't allow the great players at this World Cup to
express or show everything they can do with a ball at their
It is certainly true that this World Cup has rewarded
teamwork over individual skill.
Spain in particular spent so much time in possession,
passing it from feet to feet with the usual metronomic
precision, they clearly got used to it.
There may be a lesson there for any teams or players
inclined to blame the hardware for their hard luck.
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