In October 2017, a petition was launched urging the government to “Update the UK Traffic Signs Regulations to a geometrically correct football”.
The petition, which needs 80,000 more signatures to be debated in Parliament, argues that road signs for football grounds are misleading – because their pictures of panelled footballs aren’t geometrically correct.
“It is mathematically impossible to construct a ball using only hexagons,” explains Matt Parker, creator of the petition, whose solution is to change the hexagons-only icon to the correct pattern of hexagons and pentagons.
Parker may have made the petition as a joke, but his objection isn’t quite as trivial as it seems. In actual fact, a similar controversy took place seven years ago, and on a stage far grander than the House of Commons.
When Adidas unveiled its 2010 World Cup ball in December of the previous year, no more attention was paid than is normal for a ball unveiling.
Round, is it? Cool.
The ‘Jabulani’, Adidas’ 11th World Cup ball, had 11 colours, which were said to represent the 11 players of a football team as well as the 11 official languages and 11 tribes of South Africa. Its name meant ‘to celebrate’ in isiZulu, one of those 11 languages.
And frankly, lots of people did feel like celebrating this World Cup. God knows what was going on at FIFA behind the scenes, but the first Africa-hosted World Cup felt like a breath of fresh air.
Unfortunately, some more hardwired technical features of the Jabulani would soon make the impending World Cup a little less celebratory – at least for Adidas and its scientific collaborators at Loughborough University.
The culprit? Panels.
Since the 1960s, most standard footballs had consisted of 32 panels – a mix of hexagons and pentagons, as Parker’s petition points out.
Adidas, however, was mixing things up. Its 2006 World Cup ball, the Teamgeist, had been made of 14 curved panels, and four years later the Jabulani cut that number to just eight.
The reduction in panels, which were thermally bonded rather than stitched, supposedly made the ball ‘rounder’ than ever. But when players started kicking it around, it soon became clear that Adidas had made a total balls-up.
A few weeks before the tournament’s opening match, strange reports began to emerge about the Jabulani.
Xavi, a midfielder who could pick out a pass with his eyes closed, said the ball was moving around a lot, making it hard to control, while Italy striker Giampaolo Pazzini confessed to missing multiple headers in training. Crosses, he said, weren’t ending up where they were supposed to.
Even praise for the Jabulani came across badly. In this video, the Adidas-sponsored Frank Lampard literally scratches his head – a poker tell if ever there was one – when he says the Jabulani’s texture might “help with a bit of movement and swerve”.
It seemed as though the new ball, despite being tested at Loughborough University with a rotating leg called Dave the Robot, had a mind of its own.
“It’s terrible, horrible,” complained Brazil’s Julio Cesar, then of Inter Milan. “It’s like one of those balls you buy in the supermarket.”
“It’s a bit like a beachball,” confirmed Iker Casillas. “It’s sad that a competition as important as a World Cup has an element as vital as the ball with such abysmal characteristics.”
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Even Italy stopper Gianluigi Buffon, usually so mild-mannered, poured scorn on the Jabulani: “The new model is absolutely inadequate and I believe it is shameful to play such an important competition, where so many champions are taking part, with a ball like that.”
In hindsight, this should have surprised nobody, since supermarket balls are actually the roundest footballs you can buy. Eight panels? Your average Toy Story ball has just one, yet neither Adidas nor Dave the Robot seemed to figure this out.
Just like the designers of UK traffic signs, Adidas had created a geometrically incorrect football.
When the World Cup’s opening match arrived on the 11th of June, people were excited. Not just to see hosts South Africa take on Mexico but to see if all the Jabulani talk was true.
Siphiwe Tshabalala’s stunning opener was a goal more than worthy of the occasion, but the match – and virtually every other match of the tournament – was remarkable in another way: you weren’t just focusing on the players.
The Jabulani had been spoken about so much, you found yourself captivated by how it was going to perform, often forgetting the players altogether.
In this sense, the ball entered a small group of team-neutral entities to take centre stage at a major international tournament, joining Pierluigi Collina at the 2002 World Cup, artificial turf at the 2014 Women’s World Cup, and that massive moth on Cristiano Ronaldo’s face during Euro 2016.
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But while the attention-grabbing Jabulani was predicted to create goals out of nothing, in reality the opposite happened.
Over the course of the tournament, 145 goals were scored at a rate of 2.27 per match – the lowest goals per game at a World Cup since 1990.
Perhaps because of defensive play, perhaps because forwards were afraid to put their laces through the Jabulani, goalkeepers were spared the embarrassment of fluffing routine saves.
Well, most of them.
A day after South Africa’s 1-1 draw with Mexico, England contrived to achieve the same result against the United States, with an early Steven Gerrard goal negated by Rob Green, who chucked a trickling Clint Dempsey shot into the net.
While most laid the blame at Green’s door, knives also came out for the Jabulani.
England’s then-manager Fabio Capello said the ball might have been a factor, and Green himself – though he did own up to his mistake – also hinted at aerial deviation: “The ball may well have moved; I don’t often miss the ball by that much.”
These comments would prompt Adidas to cover its arse by telling Green it was definitely, indisputably his fault.
“We believe it was down to a massive goalkeeping mistake,” a spokesperson said. “We wish [Green] all the best for the World Cup and know he is a fantastic goalkeeper, but the goal was down to his mistake, his error.”
A rude assessment, but probably a correct one.
There were, however, one or two occasions when the influence of the Jabulani seemed harder to dispute.
Uruguay vs Ghana in the quarters might have been all about Luis Suarez and Asamoah Gyan, but Sulley Muntari’s 40-yard goal? Let’s just say that might not have gone in with a Mitre Tactic.
We’ve already had one Jabulani-free World Cup since South Africa, but I think some of us feel a very round hole in our hearts when looking at the (six-panelled) Adidas Telstar 18, the official ball of Russia 2018.
Because in spite of everything, fans loved the Jabulani.
In hindsight, it might not have been a great football. NASA didn’t think so, and the ball is still being criticised to this day – Yaya Touré recently compared it to Mitre’s light and supposedly unplayable Carabao Cup ball.
Yet none of that really matters when you recall the heartwarming comedy of Jabulani-gate, which ended up being another enjoyable part of a tournament that already had vuvuzelas, Paul the Octopus, K’Naan, and Diego Forlán.
Jabulani, consider yourself celebrated.