Thursday, June 03, 2010

Men who hate balls

I remember it like it was yesterday. Or seventeen years ago. It was 1993. I was 12. There I was, among a handful of other pre-teens, in the middle of this vast expanse of grass surrounded by a fortress of maple trees. It was hot, which pretty accurately described the weather nearly everyday of camp that summer.

A younger counselor – at the time, she looked way older, although now that I think about it, she was probably 20 – placed two pairs of traffic cones, about ten feet apart each other right next us. She took about a fifty yard jog and repeated the process with the other pair. Then, she produced what appeared to be a well-abused, but sturdy soccer ball, and promptly placed it at the halfway point.

“Okay, I want six of you on this side,” she implored, as she singled six of us out. I was not one of them. “And I want the rest of you, on that side.”

I volunteered for this only because I owed one of my campmates a favor.* I didn’t know a single thing about soccer other than that you couldn’t use your hands. You couldn’t use your hands, and you were supposed to wear your socks high. That’s about it.

(*I'm struggling to remember what that favor was for, although knowing what my appetite was back then, I'm pretty sure it was of the culinary nature.)

A few minutes later, the game was in full effect. Eventually, the ball found me. It was a bad pass that yearned for my uncultured left foot. And it died. Not my foot. The ball. It didn’t bounce off my sneaker, like it should have. Rather, it bought the farm right then and there.

It startled me for like a split second. The following split second, I did what most any kid would do in a situation like that: adjust.

I switched feet, and dragged the corpse of a ball as far as I could – about five or six paces – before I gave it a go from thirty feet. The ball made it twenty before it resumed its lifeless form. The other team secured it, and fired up a counterattack. I don’t recall much of what happened after that – I think I may have scored a goal, although I cannot corroborate that – but I do remember that poor, malnourished ball dying on my foot that day.

I’m sure this story isn’t terribly foreign to most kids, or adults. Playing with damaged equipment is almost a childhood rite of passage. Who didn’t play with underinflated soccer balls, footballs, or basketballs? Who didn’t play wiffleball with cracked wiffleballs?

Yet, here we are, in 2010, and the hot topic amid the buildup to the World Cup is the adidas Jubulani ball.

The consensus: It’s horrible. It moves through the air unnaturally. It’s “nightmarish.”

Now, I‘m not one to read between the lines, but I think what they really mean is that the new ball is the spawn of Satan. And that’s OK. It’s perfectly plausible to feel that way about a soccer ball until it’s time to return to reality.

Cue reality: multimillionaire footballers complaining about the most expensive ball on the market. Well, at least they’re not being absurd.

If you ask anyone, whether it’s the backyard maestro, the street league legend, or Brian Ching, if they would trade places with any of these unhappy footballers at the risk of playing with this insidious ball, I suspect the general response would be “yes.” I would go so far as to even say that some of these hopefuls would play with a square ball if it afforded them a trip to South Africa.

I won’t chastise the likes of David James, Julio Cesar, or Marcus Hahnemann (who actually compared it to the atomic bomb*). They are world class athletes. They all undoubtedly worked hard to secure their spots in the World Cup.

(*The atomic bomb, Marcus? Really? Last I checked, the A-bomb wiped out thousands of people. And we're comparing a SOCCER BALL to that?)

However, they (along with the rest of the soccersphere) better served if they simply put the issue to bed and do what all athletes should do anyway: adjust.

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