The tournament is still young, of course, and it’s certainly possible things heat up later in the group stage, when more is on the line. But I don’t know of anyone who isn’t complaining about the uninspiring play so far, and, in apportioning blame for that, my money is on the ball—the famous Jabulani. Before the tournament kicked off, we heard a lot about the lively new design, and particularly how it would pose problems for goalkeepers, who would prefer one that handled a bit more cleanly. But, Robert Greene notwithstanding, it seems the Jabulani has been much trickier for the field players than the men between the posts. As Grant Wahl pointed out yesterday, only twenty-three goals had been scored through the first fourteen games—many fewer than in any of the previous thirty-two team tournaments. (Through fourteen games in 1998, thirty-four goals were scored; in 2002, it was thirty nine; and in 2006, a tournament that also featured a “problematic” new ball, thirty one.) Brazil’s 2-1 victory over North Korea featured the first goal of the tournament scored by a losing team.
Perhaps more dispiriting than the shockingly low number of goals has been their shockingly low quality—aside from the marvelous South African strike to open the tournament, and Maicon’s powerful shot from the endline yesterday for Brazil, the only clean goal scored from the run of play I can think of in the entire tournament is Steven Gerard’s elegant but unspectacular toe-swipe against the United States. And this is supposed to be the sport’s greatest showcase of skill!
It’s not just the goals, either—the passing has been terrible across the board, particularly the ambitious passing, and though the better teams have, on balance, managed to accumulate and retain possession of the ball, even the most skilled sides have failed to engineer much more than what the dull American announcers keep calling “half-chances.” Sometimes fifteen half-chances add up to one or two real ones, but other times, as with Spain today, even after twenty five shots the glass remains stubbornly half-full. I’m getting thirsty!