Where the Control At?

Jabulani Ball

Creative Commons License photo credit: Eustaquio Santimano

Right up there with the complaints about the vuvuzelas at the 2010 World Cup has been tsuris about the Adidas “Jabulani” ball, which was made specifically for this event. Every four years goalies complain about the new World Cup match balls, which have consistently been made to fly faster and to swerve more severely. Glen Levy quotes Cote D’Ivoire coach Sven-Goran Erikkson as saying FIFA should heed the concerns of keepers and field players, yet Levy ultimately concludes that the concern is nothing: the low scoring is due to playing at altitude and to overly-defensive strategies.

I’m not so sure. The ball seems to be affecting offensive play more significantly than defensive play. From the opening match the ball looked to me as though it was coming upon players more quickly than they expected, and that passes were outpacing recipients more than what I’m used to seeing in the football I watch. Goalies were concerned that shots taken from distance would dip and dive and move about unpredictably; but few shots from outside the box even seem to be finding the target.

I decided to crunch some numbers to see if there was any data to support what I thought I was seeing with my eyes. I’m no Nate Silver, though I did stay in a Holiday Inn Express last night. I compared selected ball control stats from the first sixteen games of this year’s Cup with those from the sixteen matches in 2009’s Confederation’s Cup.

The results were pretty striking:

Total Passes Completed
2009: 73.7%
2010: 70.5%

Short Passes Completed
2009: 74.8%
2010: 73.6%

Medium Passes Completed
2009: 77.7%
2010: 77.4%

Long Passes Completed
2009: 61%
2010: 47.6%

Crosses Completed
2009: 34.3%
2010: 18.8%

Corners Completed
2009: 62.5%
2010: 40.6%

And, I also looked at shooting and scoring in 2009 and 2010.

Shots on Target
2009: 40.7%
2010: 34.2%

Shots Wide
2009: 42.2%
2010: 47.2%

Goals
2009: 43
2010: 27

In every one of these categories, control of the ball has been more fleeting in 2010 than 2009. Specifically, you can see that long passes, crosses, and corners have been the most severely impacted plays, sporting the largest differentials from last year to this.

All 32 of the games considered were played in South Africa, so the altitude question is neutralized. I supposed that strategic differences between a 32 team tournament and an 8 team tournament could have some impact on these numbers, as might the pressure of playing in the World Cup. I’m nowhere near equipped to integrate these allowances into my analysis. Now, everyone plays with the same ball, so I don’t think there are any questions about whether or not this situation is “fair.” But what’s above certainly combines with what I’ve witnessed with my own eyes to lead me to conclude that the Jabulani is having a negative impact on the ability of field players to control the ball.

Viva los Vuvuzelas*

When I was a youth soccer player growing up in Lansing, Michigan we used to regularly play against Eaton Rapids, a farming town about 20 miles outside the urban center. These were always tough games, mostly because the boys from Eaton Rapids were big and strong. Their squads were like little versions of the German national team, and this feeling was reinforced by the occasional racist taunts they hurled at our teams, which featured black and Latino players (and one Jew, me, who was often confused for a Puerto Rican).

But one of the most annoying things about playing Eaton Rapids was that their fans always brought these goddamn cowbells to the games, and would bang them throughout the match. I hated those cowbells, which came to mind this weekend amidst the furor against the vuvezelas that have blared and bleated throughout the first few days of the World Cup.  They’ve caused such an uproar that World Cup organizers were considering banning them from matches.

Vuvuzela

Creative Commons License photo credit: markhillary

Any soccer fan who watched the Confederation’s Cup last year or who has watched South American soccer in the past 30 years will already be familiar with this noise, and discussions about whether or not they should be banned from the Cup have been going on for a year. My feelings? Get over it. I’d much rather the Black Eyed Peas and, especially, Bono and R. Kelly be banned from the Cup; the vuvuzelas are less annoying, and at least they have character and impart a local feeling to the goings on.  Who knows, maybe they even give African and South American squads that are used to hearing them an advantage, which I’m all for given that this is the first World Cup in Africa. That they give idiotic American cretins another thing to whine about also seems an argument in their favor, doesn’t it?

If it annoys you, turn your sound down, go to a bar, or simply watch more matches. I’ve acclimated myself to them already, much more so than I ever did those goddamn Eaton Rapids cowbells.

Jason Gay offers an even heartier defense of the vuvezela here.

* Yes, I realize that “vuvezela” is not Spanish, but the alliteration was too alluring.

** PS.