A World Cup or European Championship would not be the same without goalkeepers complaining about the new footballs being used. "Like a water polo ball, very goalkeeper-unfriendly," was Paul Robinson's verdict as England's No 1 in Germany four years ago. This time, however, there is another factor to contend with in the number of games being played at altitude and when David James, not a natural whinger, describes the new Adidas Jabulani ball, developed at Loughborough University, as "dreadful, horrible", he is not merely making excuses in advance for his embattled breed.
There is already support for his views from such gifted and experienced keepers as Italy's Gianluigi Buffon ("every touch comes with the unknown") and Spain's Iker Casillas, the latter having called it "a beach ball". Attacking players, of course, will love it. England's have been enjoying their shooting sessions and Frank Lampard has been working on his technique, adopting the method employed by Cristiano Ronaldo and his Chelsea team-mate Didier Drogba in striking free-kicks with a downward motion intended to make the ball suddenly dip. "The ball is dreadful. It's horrible," James said. "You saw from Frank's free-kick in the first half against Japan which dipped wickedly, so it'll be interesting."
He even claims: "There's no real way of coping, other than lots of shooting practice. There's undoubtedly going to be some goals scored in this tournament which in previous tournaments with different balls wouldn't have been scored. It'll allow some people to score extra goals, but leave some goalkeepers looking daft. We've been doing shooting practice every day, and I've been standing behind the goals watching the ball, so we'll be prepared."
James cannot yet be certain that he will be the England keeper principally in the firing line. Despite winning his 50th cap in the Japan game and having gone to major tournaments in 2002, 2004 and 2006, it is not certain that the inscrutable Fabio Capello will prefer him to West Ham's Robert Green. "I believe the manager already knows," James said. "Even if I did, I wouldn't say. He has given all of us a run-out but that is just to make sure everyone is right for the tournament."
Joe Hart, as the youngest and least experienced of the English trio, appears to accept that he is the outsider of the three, giving the impression that he is happy to be along for the ride. "I'd like to think I've done everything I can, and am just concentrating on myself and trying to improve the team the best I can," he said. "If it means I play then great, but if not I can hold my head up. Just going to the World Cup is really exciting and I can't really believe it. It's crazy you know? I can't say I've even dreamed of it as it's come so quickly."
Hart acquitted himself well as a second-half substitute in the recent friendlies against Mexico and Japan, although he admits that in training at altitude he too found the new balls difficult to cope with: "The air's pretty thin and the balls fly fast. They're doing anything but staying in my gloves, I can tell you that. It's hard work with them but good fun. It makes the game exciting and I think that's what they [Fifa] are trying to do with it. I think we're the last thing on people's minds. That's the whole point of being a goalkeeper, you want to cause controversy and stop that ball."
As James said, they seem less likely to be doing so than in Germany four years ago. The scoring rate then was only 2.29 goals per game, the lowest at any tournament apart from Italy in 1990, when a rate of 2.21 and much dreary defensive football prompted Fifa into introducing measures that included a ban on back-passes and tackling from behind.
The ball with which Geoff Hurst scored his 1966 hat-trick was a plain brown leather one. Not until 1970 did Fifa introduce a special one for the World Cup, which had 32 black and white panels. Adidas have made every one since, introducing a polyurethane cover in 1986, the red, white and blue Tricolore in 1998 and a supposedly rounder one in 2006.
Jabulani apparently means "celebrate" in Zulu. No goalkeepers will be cheering.
Balls down the years
Telstar, 1970 Mexico
Adidas produced the first official World Cup ball, the 32-panel style becoming the basis for modern balls. Black and white panels increased visibility for the first televised competition.
Tango Espana, 1982 Spain
The first ball with water-resistant qualities. Unfortunately, wear and tear meant the ball had to be replaced regularly during matches.
Azteca, 1986 Mexico
The first rain-resistant synthetic polyurethane coated ball, moving on from traditional leather.
Fevernova, 2002 Korea/Japan
The 'syntactic foam layer' could not prevent Italy's Gianluigi Buffon labelling it a "ridiculous kiddie's bouncing ball".
Teamgeist Berlin, 2006 Germany
Rounder, but England goalkeeper Paul Robinson still says it's "like a volleyball".Reuse content