Like some of the 2010 FIFA World Cup advertisements have been preaching, all it really takes, is one moment, or even one second, to make a man into a legend, or push him down into the abyss of nothingness (or perhaps, with Rooney’s imagined desolate future in Nike’s Write The Future campaign, end up in a caravan). June 12th, was such a moment. It was a moment we held our breaths simultaneously, as we watched the adidas Jabulani skidded off Clint “Clintinho” Dempsey’s foot and rolled quite ungracefully into the goal, followed by a even more ungraceful saving attempt by England’s goalkeeper, Robert Green. That was also the moment, when the adidas Jabulani controversy has officially been lifted from news pieces, reviews and blog coverages that only soccer fanatics seem to care about, and turned into something everyone can chime in on. Why? Because, many have attributed to the uncharacteristic loss to the ball instead of the player. After that fateful game, even the U.S. keeper Tim Howard expressed sympathy for Green and said that “[the ball] is doing really silly things,”. Howard is not the only goalkeeper to speak out against the ball, prior to the tournament, many goalkeepers have mentioned that the ball is difficult to handle and worked against goalkeepers because it is unpredictable.
To fully grasp what made the adidas Jabulani so controversial, we need to first understand what it is. The adidas Jabulani (Jabulani means “to celebrate”) is not only acclaimed to be the roundest soccer ball, but it also has the highest FIFA rating, is extremely lightweight, and has been specially developed in partnership with Loughborough University. Getting a little technical, the Jabulani is created from eight thermally bonded EVA 3D panels, reduced from 14 panels used before. It is spherically molded to achieve the undistorted roundness and thus, supposed to deliver unparalleled accuracy for the players. The engineers at Loughborough University said that this is the “most consistent ball ever manufactured”, and will allow the best players in the world to showcase their skills because its shape allows it to fly through the air more smoothly, and also hit targets more reliably.
The production process is nothing short of byzantine and technical. The engineers used wind tunnels to aerodynamically design grooves for the ball. The new grooves are made with the new adidas “Grip N’ Groove” technology. The difference between this ball and some other soccer balls is that it is seamless. In the past, the direction in which the ball goes has been determined by its natural seams. Since the Jabulani doesn’t have seams, engineers have the freedom to place grooves where it is needed to make ball look more symmetrical in flight, thus more stable and give the control back to the players.
So far so good? So what exactly is the issue here? One of the most common criticism the adidas Jabulani has received is that it’s movement is unpredictable. When England national team’s Joe Hart was practicing prior to the tournament, he mentioned that the balls “have been doing anything but staying in my gloves,”. Because the ball is so light, the engineers behind the adidas Jabulani has stepped forth to mention that the ball’s unpredictability is due to a change in altitude. As the ball is extremely lightweight, when used at a higher altitude with lower atmospheric pressure, the change in pressure will have a bigger impact on the ball than on a heavier ball. The adidas Jabulani, without the heft, will be traveling with increased speed, and thus, it is perfectly natural to be less predictable. Hence, it can account for what the soccer players have been deeming as uncharacteristic bounces.
While the aerodynamics of the adidas Jabulani has received much heat from both players and some coaches, the engineers have also mentioned that it is perhaps unreasonable to expect perfect aerodynamics from the ball (though slightly contradicting to what they have promised to deliver with the perfect spherical shape) because if one were to achieve perfection in aerodynamics, one should make the ball look like a plane. The sphere, is not exactly the most aerodynamically conducive shape.
Despite the heat received from players and coaches and fans alike (and perhaps, we will expect the adidas Jabulani to continue take the blame till the end of the 2010 FIFA World Cup), there have been good feedback from certain players. Clintinho has mentioned before the matches that all one has to do is to “pay a little bit more attention” when playing, and Brazil’s Kaka has praised the ball for its sensitivity and contact.
As the engineers mentioned, every ball gets a little getting used to, and it is no different with the adidas Jabulani, especially when it is played on a higher altitude than what some players are familiar with. After the England and USA match, Dr. Andy Hardland from Loughborough University has offered to give team England a quick talk about the ball, but his offer hasn’t been taken up yet. With this in mind, check out some behind the scenes video which went into making the adidas Jabulani, including one shot in the production facility (by AbitareWeb) and another of the scientists giving feedback and showing the tremendous amount of meticulous tests conducted on the ball here.