Earlier this year, I posted a video of the production process for the revolutionary Adidas Jabulani soccer ball to be introduced at the upcoming FIFA World Cup.
Now, on the eve of the tournament, several players have begun voicing strong concerns about how difficult the ball is to control and how unpredictable it is in flight.
Most of the criticism has come from goalkeepers who claim something to the effect that “they don’t know where the ball will be.” But especially interesting are the comments from US starting goalie, Tim Howard, about 45 seconds in to the video linked above, where he acknowledges the reality of “soccer economics”: That shutouts don’t sell tickets. If you’ve ever wondered how product design, culture and economics overlap, the unfolding tale of this soccer ball is the story of their collision.
Business being business, Adidas was quick to respond: The issues the players are seeing are all due to altitude, not the ball itself. And lined up behind the company are a few players who have defended the ball: Kaka, Frank Lampard and Michael Ballack most notably. But—they are all sponsored by Adidas or play for an Adidas-sponsored club. Coincidence? Probably not. (Adidas is thinking about soccer ball sales, after all.)
Ultimately, the only one to settle this may be the designer of the ball himself, an Englishman named Dr. Andy Harland. And for what it’s worth, not only does he acknowledge the idiosyncrasies of the ball, he has offered to provide tips to his national side in advance of their opener against the US for how to best take advantage of the ball’s unique properties.
Whatever the effect of the ball, it was already shaping up to be a very exciting World Cup: It’s the first time the tournament will be hosted in Africa (South Africa) and several African teams (Ivory Coast, Cameroon and Nigeria) are fully capable of a deep run. Hopefully the games will be decided on merit and not on the erratic foibles of altitude and a perfectly round soccer ball.