Thursday, 17 June 2010

The Jabulani: predictably unpredictable

More on the Adidas Jabulani ball from Jon Naylor over at Half Volley. Adidas has produced the official World Cup ball ever since FIFA first sold the rights back in 1970. But as Naylor reminds us, this is not the first time the German sports company's technology has been criticised. In 2006, the "Teamgeist" was described by England goalkeeper Paul Robinson as "a water-polo ball", while 2002's "Fevernova" was compared by Italy's keeper Gianluigi Buffon to a "ridiculous kiddy's bouncing ball".

But if you study the statistics, says Naylor, it begins to look as if Adidas's perennial critics are merely getting their excuses in early. Since the Tricolore ball, which featured in the 1998 World Cup, "there have been progressively fewer goals scored in World Cup finals tournaments", not more.

2006 (Teamgeist): 147 goals, 2.30 per game

2002 (Fevernova): 161 goals, 2.56 per game

1998 (Tricolore): 171 goals, 2.7 per game

If the balls were "as difficult to handle as has been suggested, then surely goal avalanches would have been more regular in later tournaments," suggests Naylor, as opposed to increasingly rare?

Not necessarily. There are other factors at play, not least the attitude and skill level of the average World Cup striker. With an unpredictable ball at his feet, and the whole world watching his every move, many attacking players are opting to pass rather than shoot, or as we witnessed during England's opening match against the US, concentrating more on hitting the target than on scoring. True enough, we've seen the odd goalkeeping howler, but many more shots have ballooned over the crossbar.

So far, this World Cup has yielded the lowest number of goals in history. But there's another angle to consider. An unpredictable ball produces fewer goals, but what it also creates is more competitive matches. It may not be traditionally designed, but the Jabulani is at the very least a useful leveller, bringing parity even where attacking resources are unevenly distributed. Which is one of the reasons why games such as Brazil-North Korea are ending 2-1 rather than 5-0, and why Switzerland were at least in with a chance of toppling favourites Spain.

We might not get as many goals, but an unpredictable ball means a less predictable tournament. It's a reasonable trade-off.

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