Monday, 14 June 2010

beautiful balls

Imagine whilst typing an email that you have to hit your computer keys absolutely bang in the centre or you create random letters, spelling out “q kicw tiy” instead of “I love you.”

Or trying to change gear in your car, but finding that without pinpoint accuracy you find yourself not in third gear but in gear 3.01 or .02 or .03... none of which move your car forwards.

Or imagine making love and discovering that unless you hit the spot exactly right (and I mean
exactly right) you might as well miss by a million miles.

And then imagine brushing your teeth with a tooth brush that doesn’t bend.

Or a solid plastic mattress.

Or a knife that doesn't give slightly as you press your Marmite into your toast.

This (or something like this) is the situation facing the world’s footballers in South Africa.

At the centre of the World Cup lies not a football, but a piece of sports equipment. And like so many innovations, it’s both immaculate and emasculating.

I’m not for one moment suggesting that the days of mis-shaped, water-sodden, brown scuffed bouncing bombs were good ones. Progress is a wonderful thing. Science is a beautiful thing. But sport is a beautiful thing too, until science and progress forget that to be truly beautiful they must be at the service of something – in this case: the beautiful game.

Perhaps we’ve been spoilt in recent years and we’re only just realising it. Since the 1980’s we’ve enjoyed a shifting heavenly territory between a true sphere and the imperfect, inflectable, affectable globe we all love.

And we do all love it. Not the game perhaps, but the object.

All of us, from the earliest of ages instinctively love a ball. Any ball. We love the way we can bounce it, predict it, manoeuvre and cajole it. We love the way it defies us,
chastises us, plays with us. The way it connects us to our friends and makes playmates and heroes of them and us. The ball is simple, complex and boundless.

And the ball after all, reminds us of the shape of our home; our imperfect, unpredictable, spherical, little big planet.

But now... in South Africa we have the ‘perfect’ ball: the jabulani. But this ball is no cause for celebration.

It’s too perfect. Like a nervous tourist, it’s determined and designed not to be affected by the foreign land it’s in.

First, it’s too precise. It responds too exactly to the very specific point of pressure that’s exacted. There is no room for misinterpretation. No space for chance. Hit it with a machine (thousands and thousands of times in a row) and it will fly (thousands and thousands of times in a row) in the programmed direction. Head it goalwards with your sweaty forehead while a Serbian is tugging your shirt, and it will sail away into the electronic advertising hoarding saying simply Adidas.

And then
it’s too hard. It doesn’t give like a ball needs to give. The spherical distortion that occurs so briefly but beautifully when boot or brow embraces ball just isn’t happening. And because there’s no give, there’s no phase of movement (milliseconds after the ball’s been kicked) when the ball retrieves its natural shape and in doing so turns, spins, dips and drops into the slightly lower difference in air pressure. And in high altitude... where there’s less air to play with, we need this perfection even less.

So - free kicks are flying over the bar, goalkeepers are seeing the ball too late. (No Robert, not you - you just fluffed it. Don't worry. It'll all be forgotten when we win.)

I predict we will see in the coming days and weeks more powerful straight volleys than ever before, longer hooked clearances out of penalty areas, perhaps even a goal scored by a goal keeper. And at some point surely a gigantic bounce looping over a keeper’s head into the goal.

There’s potential in this too – witness the masters in action already: Rooney’s cross field passes against the USA, the Germans power shots against Australia and South Africa’s first goal, a beautifully blasted volley.

And still to come... The latin touches of Chile, Spain and Brazil. If anyone can make this beach ball respond gracefully it will be Ronaldo (although not by the look of things against Ivory Coast), Xavi or Robhino. But even these most sophisticated of ball boys may find their subtle art made less rich.

The precious podium on which the ball stands before the beginning of each game tells us something about its perceived status in the eyes of cash conscious FIFA.

But the ball is not the trophy.

Artistry, passion, justice and aggression; the desire to win fuelled by pride, love and self-expression; these are the components of the world’s beautiful game and these are the qualities we thirst to see win the prize, once every four long years.

So please, dear Adi Dassler...

Can we have our ball back please?

1 comment:

  1. Dear Karl,
    What a great post. Your football talk makes even me, him who grew up with Carlisle United, enthusiastic about what is happening in South Africa.
    I am Jubilaniant,