World Cup 7 days

At the World Cup, it's a whole new ball game, and for many, it's loathe at first sight

Marcus Hahnemann:
Marcus Hahnemann: "Technology is not everything. Scientists came up with the atom bomb; doesn't mean we should have invented it." (Elise Amendola/associated Press)
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By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 4, 2010

IRENE, SOUTH AFRICA -- When the U.S. national soccer team plays Australia on Saturday in its final World Cup tuneup, the Americans will have their first chance to play a competitive game with the official World Cup ball, an Adidas-made sphere called Jabulani that's causing quite a stir in the player fraternity, particularly among goalkeepers.

Brazilian goalie Julio Cesar compared it to a cheap toy purchased at a supermarket and England's David James said it was "dreadful."

Marcus Hahnemann, a U.S. reserve goalkeeper, joined the angry chorus Thursday, saying, "This ball, you don't know what is going to happen with it. It is a nightmare" for goalies.

"The idea is to make the ball score more goals, so I guess people can shoot from 40 yards and have a chance of it going in. To me, that's not good soccer. . . . Technology is not everything. Scientists came up with the atom bomb; doesn't mean we should have invented it."

Adidas claims Jabulani, which means "rejoice" in Zulu, was designed to travel more accurately than previous balls. In theory, improvements to the ball would lead to increased scoring. However, thanks to widespread defensive tactics, the average number of goals in a World Cup game has remained less than three since 1958.

The Americans were introduced to the new ball at training camp in Princeton, N.J., last month. However, in part because Nike is a U.S. Soccer Federation sponsor, the Adidas ball was not used in subsequent home games against the Czech Republic and Turkey.

Even if it had been available, the U.S. team still would have had to wait until its arrival in South Africa to adapt to the ball's movement at altitude. In addition to Saturday's game against Australia, the three U.S. first-round World Cup matches will be played in thin air, starting next Saturday against group favorite England in Rustenberg.

"The ball certainly takes off more -- it does affect spin," U.S. Coach Bob Bradley said at team headquarters in this farming village between Johannesburg and Pretoria. "We know the technology that they put into these balls these days is designed to make it lively, make it fly."

Not surprisingly, attacking players have more favorable reviews.

"If you hit it just right -- you don't even have to hit it as hard as you can, just hit it solid -- you can get a good knuckle on the ball, and that causes problems for the goalie," U.S. midfielder-forward Clint Dempsey said.

Dempsey acknowledged, however, that maintaining possession might become more difficult because "if you get the pass a little bit wrong, you can end up looking silly."

Distress about the introduction of a new ball seems to surface every four years. In 2002, then U.S. coach Bruce Arena tried to quell the hysteria, saying: "It's a ball. Last time I checked, it was still round. If they make it square, I'll start to worry about it."

As for the match against Australia, Bradley might be without starting forward Jozy Altidore, who suffered a mild sprained right ankle during Wednesday's training session. He did not practice Thursday. X-rays were negative and he will be reevaluated Friday to determine his availability for the match at 15,000-seat Ruimsig Stadium.

Meantime, central defender Oguchi Onyewu is likely to start after playing a total of 110 minutes in the previous two friendlies, which were held four days apart. It was his first action since recovering from a ruptured patella tendon.

Bradley said he is weighing his other lineup options after starting mostly reserves against the Czech Republic and primarily regulars against Turkey.

"We are still determining how to balance it out," Bradley said. "We want to continue to move our team forward, and that sometimes involves a different plan for different guys."

Each side will be able to use as many as six substitutes, three more than in a World Cup match.

Dempsey is expected to face his Fulham teammate, Australia goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer.

"It would be nice to score against Mark because he is always running his mouth in training," Dempsey joked. "A lot of the success of the team [at Fulham] goes to having that experience of having him between the sticks."

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