Complaints about the World Cup ball? Who saw that coming?

The adidas Jabulani: It's just a soccer ball, right?

The World Cup is nearly here, so I guess I had better dust off my list of World Cup cliché topics and start checking the boxes. We don’t want to leave any on the table.

We’ve already checked the box on "security concerns." That really was a "gimme" considering this is the first World Cup in a developing country.

We haven’t seen too much opining on "player overuse" just yet. But it’s still early. It’s coming.

Still ahead: conspiracy theories, goal line technology, complaints over ticketing, hooliganism (often initiated by breathless reports over the first fight in a pub involving more than two people), debates over the true economic value of a World Cup, diving and … ah, yes … the soccer ball.

Let’s go ahead and check that one off the list, too.

Every blessed World Cup, we get beat about the head with this one. Right about this time, selected players or teams bang on about the new ball (which adidas will always unveil to great acclaim, telling us that it’s X percent faster and that it’s the love spawn of fantastic new technology and sublime new materials, etc.) Meanwhile, players tell us that it moves all over the place. It’s too unpredictable. It bounces around like a drunk at a disco and changes directions more than Arlen Specter.

I’m tempted to see a little validity in the complaints this time around. Then again, I’m tempted to reach for another beer and maybe even a second plate of nachos on many nights, and I can usually conquer the urge on that one.

So, I’m going to conquer my urge here. I’m not buying it.

There’s plenty of supporting evidence that says this quadrennial round of complaints comes and goes and the World Cup is completely unaffected by predictions of any transgressions on the laws of physics. As Bruce Arena famously told us upon such complaints in 2002, "It’s a ball. It’s round." Or something to that affect.

Still, that didn’t stop players from complaining in 2006. "It’s like playing with a water-polo ball. The best description for it is goalkeeper-unfriendly. Very unfriendly." Those were words from England goalkeeper Paul Robinson about the Teamgeist ball four yeas ago.

The paranoid ramblings don’t just come from goalkeepers. Brazilian players complained during their May training camp in 2002 that the ball was "too big and too light."  Of course, they won that year, so it apparently wasn’t too big and too light after all.

Carping and barking about soccer balls is not just a World Cup tradition. Spanish players went upside the head on the Roteiro before Euro 2004. They said it was like a beach ball – something we’re hearing a lot of today. Honestly, they least they could do is not cut and paste their complaints. We demand variation!

Remember France ’98? Fears of balls dancing unpredictably all went back to Roberto Carlos’s dazzling, flummoxing free kick struck a year before.

Going all the way back to 1994, I remember the worries of Tony Meola and other goalkeepers about to backstop efforts at USA ’94. They didn’t like the ball. Too light. Moves too much. Like the silly, naïve cubby little reporter I was at the time, I bought it. I wrote about it. Boo, me.

By the way, why all this is coming up now, I couldn’t say. Teams were provided 25 balls upon qualification.  So they’ve had it all along. Presumably, they’ve been training with it over the last few weeks.

Finally, there’s this: every team will use the same ball in South Africa. All 32 of them. I checked.

Part of every athletic event is adjusting to circumstances. So I don’t want to hear that the ball is too light, the grass is too slick (or too slow), the air is too thin or the temperature is too hot. (At least we won’t have to put up with that one in chilly South Africa.)  Competition means being the best in a given set of shared variables.  

Arena was right. It’s a ball. It’s round.

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