Adidas pays big bucks to be an official World Cup sponsor, which gives it the right to make the official match ball for this year's event and the chance to sell a zillion of them worldwide. This World Cup ball is called Jabulani, which means "to celebrate" in the Bantu language of Zulu, one of the official languages of South Africa, but some players are hardly cheering. The level of complaining about the new ball is so loud that perhaps Adidas should rename the thing. What's the Zulu word for gripe?
Whining about the World Cup soccer ball has itself become a quadrennial event. "The ball is dreadful," says England goalkeeper David James. "It's horrible, but it's horrible for everyone. It will allow some extra goals, but leave some goalkeepers looking daft." This from a guy known in England as Calamity James for his tendency for big gaffes, but he's hardly alone. The knock is that when Jabulani is kicked, it flies like a wounded duck. If the ball creates calamity on the field, it could threaten the integrity of this year's tournament as well as retail sales of the Adidas ball, which costs between $25 and $150, depending on how closely the design matches the real thing. So far, the controversy doesn't seem to have hurt sales: Adidas has already sold twice as many soccer balls in the U.S. than it did for the 2006 World Cup.
Brazil net minder Julio Cesar, one of the world's best, calls Jabulani "terrible" and even compares it to a cheapo balloon-ball you'd find in a supermarket. Strikers generally love it when their shots do a little dance on the way toward the goal it's a sign they've really smacked one. Yet Italian striker Giampaolo Pazzini calls the ball a "disaster," while Brazil striker Luis Fabiano complains about the ball's unpredictable trajectory. "You are going to kick it and it moves out of the way," Fabiano says. "I think it's supernatural. It's very bad."
Technology has changed everything about soccer balls since the days of the stitched leather rocks that were used until Adidas introduced the Telstar for the 1970 World Cup. The Telstar consisted of 32 panels based roughly on Buckminster Fuller's geometric "Buckyball" design and was stitched together in a less-than-perfectly-circular fashion.
Adidas is calling Jabulani "the most innovative ball ever made" and claims that its "Grip N' Groove" technology makes the ball "the most accurate and roundest" in history. "The Jabulani has been extensively tested to meet FIFA standards and is 27% more accurate than match balls on the market today," writes Antonio Zea, director of soccer for Adidas America, in an e-mail. "We feel confident that the World Cup will be a success and the ball will be one of the most visible icons of the event." Adidas used only eight panels to build this ball, which the company insists keeps the shots straight. Tiny grooves on the ball also capture wind currents, keeping air off the surface, resulting in a more true flight, according to Adidas. The company has a fetish with the number 11; the ball features 11 colors, representing 11 players on a team, the 11 official languages in South Africa and the 11th straight World Cup for which Adidas has manufactured the game ball.
Is there some gamesmanship going on before the big games? The company points out that many top professional teams have used the ball since December, with nary a complaint. Plus, the chirps have been loudest from those teams outfitted by Puma and Nike, Adidas' big rivals. On the flip side, Germany, which is sponsored head to toe by Adidas and is home to the company's headquarters, has been complimentary. Oddly enough, the lead designer of Jabulani hails from England, Germany's arch-rival, and he has offered to give his home country some free advice on how to use the ball to its advantage. But if the ball flies so true, why on the eve of the World Cup would one of the world's best teams need a lesson on how to use it?
Adidas insists that once the whistle blows to start the games, the controversy will subside. That's probably right, since both sides play with the same ball. If you lose 3-0, you can't blame the ball, even if that's no cause for Jabulani.
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