Monday, June 28, 2010


The word, in Zulu, means rejoice.
But, in Brazil, few folks could tell you that.
If you say Jabulani around here, people think  football.
More specifically, the football, the one being used in the FIFA World Cup.
And they think crap.
Time was, that the Cup was played-out with balls that had no name, and were brown, like the one above. That changed in 1970, when the event was broadcast live, on television, for the first time.
A ball was required that would be clearly visible in black and white, and Adidas, the German manufacturer, was asked to make one.
They came up with a design that most of us are familiar with today, a sphere with 32 panels, white for visibility, and black to help players detect swerve when the ball is in flight.
Enter the Telstar, named after a communications satellite to which it bore a distant resemblance.
The Telstar was a great success. So much so, that Adidas got the contract to supply World Cup balls ever after. (Or through 2014, at any rate.)
But they didn’t rest on their laurels.
No, they kept on tinkering with the product.
Every new ball got a new name, the Tango, the Azteca, the Tricolore, to name just a few.
And now, God help us, we have the Jubulani.
And devoutly wish we hadn’t.
Because this paragon of the ball maker’s art responds to kicks in an entirely new way.
Former Liverpool player Craig Johnston believes the "erratic, wild and unpredictable" nature of the Jabulani is "contributing to a much poorer World Cup".
England’s coach, Fabio Capello claims  it’s the worst ball he’s ever seen.
 Júlio César, Brazil’s goalkeeper, called it “as unpredictable as one of those cheap balls you’d buy in a supermarket.”
And striker Lúis Fabiano referred to its radical changes of direction as "supernatural".
In the midst of the ruckus, and responding to the complaints, two Brazilian scientists got their hands on a Jabulani and dragged it off for tests in a wind tunnel at the University of São Paulo.
Here’s what they discovered:
The Jabulani has more wind resistance, and therefore loses velocity faster, than any of its predecessors.
But that’s not the major problem.
The major problem is that, at slow speeds, the Jabulani moves through the air pretty much like any other football.
But at speeds above seventy km/h, the direction of motion begins to become erratic.
And becomes more erratic as the speed increases.
How fast is a kick when a striker is shooting at the goal?
Sometimes as much as 140km/h.
See, now, why so many players and coaches are concerned?
And their concerns are mounting.
Games, from here on in, could be decided by penalty kick shootouts.
And how’s that going to work if neither the shooter, nor the goalie, can be sure of the direction that will be taken by the ball?
The FIFA has, at least, acknowledged that there’s a problem.
After the conclusion of the Cup, they’ve agreed to discuss the matter with coaches, teams and Adidas.
Meantime, everyone is just going to have to live with it.
A footnote: the Brazilian experience prompted scientists at Caltech to test the ball on the 23rd of June. Their results confirm what everyone else has been saying about the Jabulani.

 Leighton - Monday


  1. Leighton, I will pass this on to my Italian friends so they can console themselves as they lick their wounds. They need solace.

  2. I don't want to imply that Adidas is motivated by profit but I don't think they were overlooking the legions of playground soccer players who, of course, want the same ball the professionals use.

    Half of the world's population knows that tinkering is a guy thing. I have had personal experience with tinkering that was carried on to the point that the object got tinkered right into the trash.

    If something is working perfectly why does it need to be changed? The half of the world's population that believes that leaving well enough alone is a challenge to be met include some of the people who got tinkered right out of the World Cup competition.

    Did Adidas not test the ball with real professional soccer players or were they afraid to bring the problem to light before hundreds of balls and millions of dollars proved the new idea was a bad idea?

    On another note, the picture of the goalie, seemingly floating parallel to the ground, will remind Boston hockey fans of a similar moment in Boston Bruins history. The most respected professional athlete in the Boston pantheon is likely Bruins superstar Bobbie Orr. Orr had 13 knee surgeries before he had to retire at the age of 30. The most famous photo shot in hockey is of Bobby Orr flying through the air, delivering the winning goal in the 1970 Stanley Cup final. In May, the Bruins unveiled a bronze statue of "the goal" outside what all Bostonians still refer to as Boston Garden. In all the years he has been active in Boston charities and in business, there has never been one negative word about the man. He has two sons, neither of whom he encouraged to play hockey.

    Thanks, Leighton.

  3. Hi Leighton,

    That's the wildest story I've ever heard.

    Didn't anybody use that ball for practice?


  4. To those asking why FIFA/Adidas hasn't tested these in real-world situations -- they have!

    * The Bundesliga has been using the Jabulani since December.

    * The MLS has been using it since at least March.

    * Every nation competing in the World Cup was provided with a consignment of Jabulanis back in February. Some countries even requested extra shipments. (England, however, apparently managed to misplace their original consignment and didn't bother practicing with replacements until a month or so before the competition began.)

    And here are some choice quotes to put things in perspective:

    A) England's keeper: "It’s like playing with a water-polo ball. The best description for it is goalkeeper-unfriendly. Very unfriendly."

    B) Brazilian players complain that it's "too big and too light".

    C) The US keeper complains that the ball is "too light".

    D) Spanish players: "It's horrible, difficult to control and to pass ... It's hard to believe they can call this a ball. It lifts a lot and doesn't follow a true line."

    Guess what? NONE of the above quotes are about the Jabulani. They're about the A) 2006 World Cup ball, B) 2002 World Cup ball, C) 1998 World Cup ball, and D) Euro 2004 ball (for good measure).

    As you can see, complaining about the ball is a World Cup tradition that happens at every competition. The 2006 Teamgeist was heavily criticized at the last World Cup (see quote A above), yet it's been in constant use for the last 4 years with no complaints. I suspect we'll see a similar outcome with the Jabulani.

  5. That does indeed seem grounds for murder ... are you including this in a plot soon?


    I was going to check in with a response to your questions/comments about the testing the Jabulani when CHESTER kindly did it for me.

    I could add to his comments that the ball was developed by scientists at Loughborough University in the UK and launched to great fanfare, including an impressive presentation of technical details.

    Just for fun, you guys might like to watch excerpts from a video of the launch. Here's the URL to copy and paste into your browser.

    It's true, too, that Adidas, like Chester, continues to defend their ball. And that every new ball, in the pest, HAS been criticized.

    Time will tell whether Chester is right when he says that the Jabulani will gain acceptance in the end.

    My two cents?
    It won't.

    Point#1: No ball has EVER received as much criticism as the Jabulani. With the previous balls, there were always players and coaches who didn't join in the condemnation of the new. This time, however, that condemnation appears to be generalized. Players might be out there speaking in defense of the ball, but I haven't heard of one.

    You, Chester?

    Point#2: No ball has ever been subjected to so much post-testing as a result of the criticism. And I know of no case where the aerodynamic characteristics of the ball have been shown to be so radically different from that of its predecessor.

    Point#3: Never has the FIFA backed down to the point where they've agreed to set up a joint commission to review the comportment of the ball after the matches are over.

    I think most fans will be curious to hear what that commission comes up with.
    I know I will.

    Meanwhile, I retain my right to hate the Jabulani.

    And I never felt that way about the Teamgeist.

  7. Have any scientists tried putting the referees' wallets in a wind tunnel to see what billows out?


  8. Any complaints from German and Dutch players about the Jabulani?

    And yes on Bobby Orr. I grew up in Montreal in the 1970s, and those Bruins teams were the only ones who were worthy opponents -- the only non-Canadiens players we pretended to be when we played. He also was a better human being than the Bruins' other star, Phil Esposito.

  9. Peter
    I don't know about the Germans, but I asked a daughter in the Netherlands, and she assured me that the Dutch team and coach think the Jabulani is "terrible".

  10. What I wonder is why the compulsion, other than the vast commerical possibilities for FIFA and adidas, to design a new ball for each Worlc Cup? Carry out constant research on ball design, yes, but don't introduce a new ball unless there is a pressing need to do so.

    I also find it curious that FIFA apparently introduced the ball at the highest levels. Other sports associations will generally test innovations at lower levels of competition first.