Controversy Over The World Cup Soccer Ball

Even though the World Cup ball is nicknamed Jabulani — which means "celebrate" in Zulu — it's making the players want to go into mourning. They say the ball is too light, too round and moves waaaay too fast. Melissa Block interviews Kevin Baxter, who is covering the World Cup for the L.A. Times, about the controversy surrounding this year's World Cup ball.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Dreadful, horrible, a catastrophe, a disaster - those words describing, in this case, not the Gulf oil spill but the official match ball for the 2010 World Cup. Like a ball you'd buy in a supermarket, complains a goalkeeper from the Brazilian team. This ball has a mind of its own, chimes in a keeper from South Africa.

The ball, made by Adidas, is called the Jabulani from the Zulu word meaning to celebrate. Ha. Well, Kevin Baxter has been trying to read the mind of that much maligned ball. He's in South Africa covering the World Cup for the LA Times.

Kevin, what is the problem with the Jabulani? What's it doing?

Mr. KEVIN BAXTER (Journalist, LA Times): Well, no one seems to know. And all those words you used to describe the ball, those are only words that you can use on a radio station like NPR. People are saying a lot stronger language when you get them off the tape recorder.

Some people think it's the way the ball was constructed. Adidas and their designers spent five years working on this ball. They say it's the most advanced soccer ball ever made. But it's not performing that way, and people knew it was going to be a problem going into the World Cup.

The most interesting thing for me, though, is it isn't just the teams that lose that complain about it. When the U.S. tied England in their first match, the tying goal was controversial. And afterwards, a lot of the U.S. players said: You know what? The goalkeeper never really had a chance. It was the ball that caused that goal to score.

BLOCK: You're talking about the game on Saturday, when the ball just slipped right out of the hands of the goalkeeper, Robert Green, and he said afterward: I don't want to make any excuses about the ball. It might have moved. I dont know.

Mr. BAXTER: Someone asked him was it the ball to try to give him an out, and he wouldn't take it. He said I'm not going to use that as an excuse, but I will say I've never missed the ball by that much in my life.

And the guy who scored the goal, Clint Dempsey, even he said, you know, that ball is very difficult to read. It moves a lot. That might have had something to do with it.

And I mean, here's a guy that scored one of the most important goals in U.S. soccer history, and he's sitting there saying, you know what, maybe I had a little bit of help from the ball. I thought that was a remarkable statement.

BLOCK: Well, how is the ball behaving or misbehaving in this case? What's it doing?

Mr. BAXTER: Well, it just doesn't seem to move predictably, and goalies seem to be talking about it the most because goalies and defenders who have to take balls out of the air, as they leap, the ball seems to dive.

We had a situation yesterday in the Serbia-Ghana game where a Serbian defender went up to head the ball, and the ball actually dropped and hit him on the hand. He was charged with a hand ball. It turned into a penalty kick, and that decided the game, one to nothing for Ghana.

BLOCK: Well, this ball was much ballyhooed before the World Cup by Adidas. What in the design would possibly be making it behave differently than any other World Cup balls before this?

Mr. BAXTER: What it seems to be is one thing, most of the matches so far have been played at altitude. And so to help the ball fly more cleanly and more straightly at altitude, Adidas put a lot of grooves in this ball, and that seems to be the problem. The grooves seem to be picking up air and moving the ball in unpredictable ways.

And I suppose that could have been somewhat predicted if you look at what happens with a baseball pitcher when he scratches a ball or puts a dent in a ball in some way. That ball will move unpredictably. And I think these grooves are doing the same thing.

BLOCK: Kevin, aren't there complaints about the ball in just about every World Cup that comes around?

Mr. BAXTER: Yeah, that's true. And it's funny, if you go back to the first World Cup where Adidas provided the official match ball, back in the '70s, the one with the white and black geometric shapes, that was the first one that Adidas came out with. That was widely panned. People didn't like it.

It was designed primarily for TV. That World Cup, the 1970 World Cup, was the first one televised live to Europe, and people hated it. Well, now it's the most popular ball in the world. I don't think the Jabulani is going to have that kind of a lifespan, but you're right. Every World Cup, people complain about the ball, especially the losing teams, but again, what makes this World Cup different is even the winners are saying the balls are deciding games.

BLOCK: Well, Kevin Baxter, thanks for talking to us about the controversial Jabulani ball.

Mr. BAXTER: Thanks so much for the call.

BLOCK: Kevin Baxter is a sports reporter for the LA Times. He spoke with us from Johannesburg.

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