Offside, 2 July
Euro 2004 wasn't the best occasion to try and reinvent the football.
Over the past week we’ve heard plenty about bad referees, the lottery of the penalty shootout, and the exhaustion that comes from a long season of club football. But the thing that is really playing on my mind is that ball they’re using. It’s brand new, the product of years of development by the boffins at Adidas. The makers have christened it ‘Roteiro’, apparently after the notebook of the Portuguese explorer, Vasco da Gama.
It’s silver, which seems a particularly rum colour for a football. But since the players are now wearing all sorts of colours of boots and hair, footballs that are boring old mostly-white (or orange for those games on snowy days) are just so old hat. It’s a wonder that the grass is still green.
Except that this new ball is not really silver at all. It’s actually a new colour called Sportsbrand Guff, which is shorthand for the following: ‘The unique and dynamic design features an aqua metallic base colour, which represents the sky, a blue globe colour reminiscent of the sea, and silver lines to signify the coordinate system used and perfected by the Portuguese.’ Like I said, Sportsbrand Guff.
Adidas has also made a big song and dance about the fact that balls will be uniquely created for each game, with 20 made available with the names of the teams and the date on. In the true spirit of branding, this is stupendously pointless. What happens if someone scores a hat trick? Do they have to keep a complete set of 20 balls? Suddenly, that extra wing on the sprawling mansion in Cheshire could come in handy.
Most importantly, the Roteiro is more round than previous footballs. Footballs in recent times have seemed, to the casual observer, pretty round already. If you kick them, they seem to roll for quite a long way. But Adidas has made this one even rounder. In roundness terms, this football is an 11.
What this seems to achieve is that the ball goes much further than intended. So the matches in Euro 2004 have been blighted by crosses sailing over everyone in the penalty area, and defence-splitting through-balls that go out of play, beyond the reach of the poor soul running after them (usually Michael Owen).
The powers that be have been warned about this ball. ‘The ball is strange. We have all discussed it and we all feel the same way’, Greek midfielder Vassilis Tsartas told reporters at the team’s training camp. ‘This ball could be good for the players of Real Madrid who play with short passes. But our players have problems controlling it with long passes’, complained Czech Republic coach Karel Bruckner. Not that it has done either team any harm – they both qualified for the semi-finals, knocking out teams with significantly better pedigrees.
It is true that in the past footballs were crap, as I have learned while reading a short history of footballs on soccerballworld.com (1). Considerable progress has been made from the days of inflating pigs’ bladders, or trying to head sodden, lace-up balls that weighed more than Saturn. But has there really been much advance on the 1978 classic Tango ball?
More to the point, there are times and places to launch new innovations. In what other sport would it seem to be a good idea to change the main object of play at the start of a major tournament? Would this happen in snooker? One can only imagine the cries of protest if the World Championship started with silver cue balls that ran wildly up and down the table beyond the control of the players.
Admittedly, they have done this kind of thing in cricket for years, but if you’d seen the tiny attendances at the average county championship game these days, you’d understand why they would try anything. It’s a wonder that they aren’t playing the game butt naked to try to get some women to come and watch.
The main reason that football’s authorities are tinkering with the ball is that it’s cool and trendy, and somebody somewhere has paid a fantastically large sum of money for the rights to use their special, branded football on such a big occasion.
Not only is this taking some of the skill out of the game – it’s also breeding a generation of football softies. When I were a lad, we would play footie in the schoolyard with some glorified beachball or another. Sometimes we’d even have to resort to a tennis ball – when there was no sucker so desperate to curry favour that he would bring his birthday present ‘Wembley 5’, surely knowing that it would be flat, stolen or confiscated before the week was out.
But when we trudged up to the school playing fields, we used a Real Football. And there really is nothing more character forming than to have a rock-hard leather ball rebound off a cold and tender thigh on a windy day in November. Especially a ball that, like the Earth, has become flattened at the poles over the years.
What youngster these days will experience that? Instead, they’re using those glorified beachballs in games, and pretending that they’re Beckham or Zidane because the slightest gust of breeze will send their crappy attempts at free kicks swerving all over the place.
Still, I wouldn’t mind playing school football now. There might be hope for a non-stop, tackling midfielder like me – ie, a skinny kid with no skill who made up for it by running around a lot. Unfortunately, like the balls, I’m a lot rounder these days.
(1) The History of the Soccer Ball, Soccerballworld