By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 15, 2010;
JOHANNESBURG -- Four days into the month-long World Cup, a sound is building on the playing fields from Cape Town to Johannesburg that threatens to rival, if not overtake, the high-pitched din of South African vuvuzelas.
It is the sound of whining.
Not a day has gone by that a global soccer star or highly compensated coach hasn't complained about one thing or another that's spoiling the beautiful game.
The high-tech Adidas soccer ball designed expressly for the 2010 World Cup is a disaster, according to a host of players, who say it's flummoxing world-class goalkeepers and otherwise prolific scorers with its erratic spins and bounces.
The semi-artificial field at Peter Mokaba Stadium in Polokwane -- a mixture of grass and synthetic fibers -- is oddly fast and unpredictable, opposing coaches carped after a poorly struck ball led to a goalkeeping gaffe that handed Slovenia a 1-0 upset of Algeria.
And the incessant buzz of the plastic horn known as the vuvuzela is drowning out all conversation on the field. "It is impossible to communicate," said Argentina's Lionel Messi after his country's 1-0 victory over Nigeria. "It's like being deaf."
It's an open question whether there's merit in the griping or it's simply a case of finicky millionaire athletes fixating on all that's different about the first World Cup contested on African soil.
But it's a familiar refrain to former player Alexi Lalas, a member of the United States' 1994 and 1998 World Cup squads, who's in South Africa as a member of ESPN's broadcast team.
"It's all whining," said Lalas, 40. "It happens at every World Cup with regard to the ball. It happens every World Cup with regard to the surface. When you're at a World Cup, and a billion people are watching you -- whether it's a case of losing or not playing well -- it's human nature. You try to look for reasons other than the fact that you made a mistake."
Elite soccer players hardly have a monopoly on complaining in sports.
National Basketball Association players hated Spalding's new microfiber composite basketball so much when it was introduced in 2006, saying it was slippery and cut their fingers, that the league reverted to the traditional leather model.
Major league pitchers famously balked over the more tightly wound core of a redesigned baseball that juiced up hitting averages and put a dent in their own ERAs.
NASCAR drivers who end up wrecking are often quick to blame their misfortune on tires that can't take the pounding or racetrack surfaces that are overdue for repaving.
But the griping at the 2010 World Cup is adding a new dimension to the game -- and not an entirely flattering or constructive one.
Amid the controversy over the ball, FIFA secretary general Jerome Valcke accused disgruntled Brazilian players of using the issue as an excuse, should they need one, if they performed poorly.
Brazil Coach Dunga scoffed, noting that Valcke had never kicked a ball.
Yet few would fault Brazil for any World Cup dramatics. Soccer in Brazil is an art form. And expectations for the world's most decorated national team border on crushing, with anything less than a sixth World Cup title sure to be deemed a failure.
The U.S. team, by contrast, launched its World Cup campaign with more goodwill than expectation. For the Americans, who were bounced after the first round in 2006, advancing to the round of 16 will be deemed a success.
And the Americans got off a serendipitous start in their opening clash with England on Saturday, thanks partly to the much-maligned ball.
After surrendering an early goal, the United States evened the score on a shot that England goalkeeper Robert Green should easily have handled. Instead, he let it dribble off his mitts -- a gaffe two British tabloids dubbed "the Hand of Clod," playing on the infamous "Hand of God" goal scored by Argentina's Diego Maradona after he committed an uncalled hand ball in a game against England in the 1986 World Cup.
While England Coach Fabio Capello said he believed the ball was partly responsible, U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard made a series of spot-on, spectacular saves in the match, reading the ball as if it were a child's primer.
The verdict on the ball was further muddled after Germany erupted for four goals in its 4-0 rout of Australia. Clearly, some World Cup teams speak the ball's language.
Meantime, a growing number of TV viewers are siding with players who feel the vuvuzelas are detracting from the game, and Danny Jordaan, chief executive of South Africa's Local Organizing Committee, didn't rule out the possibility of banning the horns in an interview with the BBC. But Sepp Blatter, president of soccer's world governing body, said Monday that the vuvuzelas are here to say. "I don't see banning the music traditions of fans in their own country," Blatter told the Associated Press.
But whether the issue is an unfamiliar ball or a maddening sound, U.S. coaches have stressed to their players the importance of worrying only about factors they can control.
"The way we prepare our team is, we try to deal with the known quantities: Who we are, what we're about, how we want to play this game, what we know about the opponent," U.S. assistant Jesse Marsch said. "If you start worrying about the ball or any of these other things that people have highlighted, you lose focus on what's important: Having a group that's ready to compete at the highest level."
Lalas believes that's precisely what distinguished exceptional athletes from journeymen.
"They not only possess the physical ability that sets them apart, but also the mental ability," Lalas said. "And if you don't have that quality, then you're going to struggle in international soccer because you're going to get different types of fields, different types of climate, different types of equipment and referees. Sure, a player would love to play in the most ideal situation. But it's never like that."