|ESPN.com: Wayne Drehs Blog||[Print without images]|
EAST HARTFORD, Conn. -- It seems like a rite of passage for every World Cup. Adidas introduces a newer, better, more technologically advanced soccer ball, and players from around the world -- especially goalkeepers -- complain.
This year's ball, the Jabulani, is no different. Some like it. Some don't. And then there's U.S. backup goalkeeper Marcus Hahnemann, who talks about the ball like a man who has just endured a week of root canals.
"It's horse s---," Hahnemann said. "It's the worst soccer ball I've ever played with. It's plastic. It feels like s--- when it comes off your foot. It moves like crazy. It swerves.
"It's kind of like one of those plastic balls kids play with at the beach. You can't tell what it's going to do. It sucks."
Hahnemann's words bite more than most. A random sampling of U.S. players (see the video below) found mixed reviews. Like every other year, strikers seem to like it, goalkeepers don't. Players sponsored by adidas seem to like it, players sponsored by Nike don't.
One thing that's agreed upon: Getting used to the ball takes time. And practice. The team used the Jabulani exclusively during its Princeton training camp. Yet when they take the pitch Tuesday night against the Czech Republic (7:30 p.m. on ESPN), they will play with a Nike ball. They will do the same on Saturday against Turkey (2 p.m. on ESPN).
Though the U.S. men's national team is sponsored by Nike, U.S. Soccer officials said it is not contractually obligated to use Nike balls in its send-off series matches. Officials said that in 2006, the team used the Adidas "Teamgeist" in its send-off matches. This time, manager Bob Bradley agreed to use the Nike balls.
So the team will switch to the Nike ball this week and then back to the Jabulani once they arrive in South Africa next week. They will use the Jubalani for the June 5 friendly against Australia.
"We can do it," Bradley said of switching back and forth. "I'm not worried about it."
Adidas has made every World Cup ball since 1970. Since the much-maligned Teamgeist was used in Germany, adidas scientists have used wind tunnels; robots; and the company's partnership with athletes such as Frank Lampard and Petr Cech from the Czech Republic, Kaka of Brazil and Michael Ballack of Germany to create a less controversial ball. Mission, impossible.
The Jabulani, which means "celebrate" in the Bantu language isiZulu, is made of eight panels, and its surface has several tiny grooves that are designed to make the ball more aerodynamic and easier to grip. Adidas says these changes not only give the player better control but also a 70 percent larger striking surface. Whether this actually makes for better soccer depends on whom you ask. Lampard, Cech, Kaka and Ballack all love the ball -- of course. Others aren't so sure. And we also have yet to see how the ball will respond at altitude in South Africa.
"The technology is such that the balls are designed to take off and fly," Bradley said. "People think that makes the game more exciting with the possibility of goals from distance. But I don't think you'll find too many keepers who think that's what they want."
Like Hahnemann, who is more familiar with the Nike balls that are used in the Premiership. Though FIFA regulates the size and shape of every ball, there is wiggle room in terms of how the ball is put together. Hahnemann wishes the balls were better regulated.
"It's just ridiculous," Hahnemann said. "There has to be a standard of what the ball should be like. Imagine baseball if the ball came out and it was like, 'Oh, we're playing at this place now so we're going to use this new ball.' And the pitches would look totally different.
"It's not making the game any better. It's making the game worse."
How do Hahnemann's teammates feel about the Jabulani? Watch the video.