Ask your average football fan the one thing they would like to see changed about the game, and the majority will reply with the word 'technology'. There is no doubt that following the infamous Frank Lampard goal that never was in World Cup 2010 that something needs to be done to avoid such injustices occurring again, and that's something we absolutely need to work on.
But there is a much more potent and painful disease eating away at our beautiful sport, and the public in general appear to be completely ignorant about it. Crazy as it may sound, the biggest problem today are the footballs themselves.
While the shocking behaviour of the Adidas Jabulani in South Africa highlighted to a universal audience just how the planet’s biggest event can be ruined, the truth is that the poor performance of the footballs at the World Cup wasn’t a one-off episode, balls have gradually been getting worse for the best part of 30 years now.
So what is wrong with modern footballs, I hear you cry. In a nutshell, balls today are too plastic. They travel too fast, they ‘behave’ too light, and they are too bouncy.
It is as clear as daylight that there has been a deliberate effort by the footballing bodies to make the footballs more and more synthetic and unpredictable with each passing year in order to make the game faster, and to provide “more excitement”.
The last ever leather ball used at a World Cup was the legendary Adidas Tango – undoubtedly the greatest football of all time. From 1986 onwards, with the introduction of the Adidas Azteca – the World Cup’s first ever fully synthetic football – every single passing year and World Cup has seen the footballs become more and more and more plastic. And the straw that broke the camel’s back was the petrol station beach ball - the Jabulani - at World Cup 2010.
There is a simple reason why playmakers, trequartistas, and midfield dictators have all but disappeared from the game, and it isn’t – as much of the media blindly argue – because the game is faster nowadays. The cause is the footballs.
The classic ‘number 10’, the shirt and the position that every footballer growing up used to desire, is virtually extinct. The Italian national team exemplifies this perfectly. Over the years they have produced numerous world-class No.10s, the likes of Gianni Rivera, Sandro Mazzola, Roberto Baggio, and most recently Francesco Totti. At South Africa 2010, coach Marcello Lippi refused to take a fantasista with him on the plane as the Azzurri humiliatingly crashed out first round. Brazil also snubbed their true ‘No.10’, Ronaldinho.
Number 10s ¦ Virtually extinct
Balls today have destroyed the through pass, the most dangerous weapon of the No.10's armoury. Ten, 20, 30 years ago you could thread a ball between two defenders, or chip a pass over the back four, and expect a runner to get onto the end of it. In 2010, the balls are so plastic that more than nine times out of 10 they either run straight out of play or directly through to the goalkeeper. Michel Platini was the greatest passer of all time, and perhaps only second to Zico at executing the through pass. Both these legends would have been half the players they were back in the 1970s and 80s had they used a Jabulani instead of a Tango.
Football has become more Americanised now. The ball pings around like a Premier League game, but there aren’t the same skill levels, the technique, the natural control of the football, and the individual magicians that there were in past decades. Goal poachers in the mould of Gerd Mueller, Gary Lineker and Pippo Inzaghi are also a dying breed.
Goal Poachers ¦ Virtually extinct
The bounce of the plastic balls mean that medium and long range passes almost always have to be to feet, otherwise they zip out of play. In the past an over-hit cross could be retrieved on the other side of the pitch before it went out for a goal kick or throw-in, today the beach ball doesn’t hold up on the turf. In the 33rd minute of the 2010 World Cup final a routine Dutch pass back to the Spain goalkeeper from the halfway line following an injury break bounced over Iker Casillas’ head and past the post by inches. Another example of how farcical today’s footballs are.
Long shots are hit and miss. For every Giovani van Bronckhorst screamer into the top corner, another 10 fly miles over the bar into Row Z. Free kicks are another dying speciality. Who are the set piece experts, and how many direct goals have they scored over the past year or two? In the eighties there was Platini, Zico and Diego Maradona, in the nineties Roberto Baggio, Roberto Carlos, David Beckham and Gianfranco Zola, and in the noughties Alessandro Del Piero, Juninho, Andrea Pirlo and Zinedine Zidane. Today Cristiano Ronaldo – who closes his eyes and hits the valve as hard as possible – is rated as a specialist, even though he has no idea where each effort will end up.
Getting the ball up and down has become more and more difficult. This affects not only free kick taking, but also chipped shots. Glenn Hoddle, Dennis Bergkamp, Luis Figo and Francesco Totti were famous for some moments of genius in dinking the ball over the goalkeeper from the angled edge of the area. This type of move has become almost impossible with the plastic footballs. Even Fabio Quagliarella’s world class chipped shot against Slovakia at the World Cup was still rising as it hit the back of the net.
Chips over the goalkeeper ¦ Virtually extinct
Intercepting, and reading the game, is another lost art and the majority of defenders in 2010 are reactive rather than proactive. Stoppers are so far inferior to those from twenty years ago that, due to dropping standards, the likes of Gerard Pique and John Terry are actually considered world class in some circles.
As fans, you must ask yourself if you are content to watch a game where so many of the game’s beautiful aspects – such as playmaking, through passes, chipped goals, dipping free kicks – are being lost.
Barcelona and Spain are the exceptions that prove the new rule about how these plastic balls are producing worse players and worse football. Think back to your school playground when 40 kids would chase a Shoot 99p ball from the local corner shop. The faster and more aggressive youths were often the best to have on your team, whereas the technical and tactical children were sometimes unable to express themselves amid all the chaos. However, on the real football pitch the tables were emphatically turned as the 'playgrounders' didn’t have a clue what to do when there was order and organisation. This scenario is not too dissimilar to what is now happening at the very highest level of the game. Football has become about running and playground athleticism, and less about skill. The lighter the football = the worse the footballer.
Plastic footballs = plastic football
Former Liverpool star and designer of the Adidas Predator football boot, Craig Johnston, agrees that modern footballs risk destroying the game and adds a financial side to the argument.
"If a sponsor came into your office before the World Cup and said: 'We are going to give you a new, perfectly round match ball, the players won't like it at all, there will be more mistakes made than in any other World Cup, there will be less free-kicks scored, less passes complete, less control by players and roughly 70% of crosses and shots on goal will miss wide and go way over the crossbar. What would you say to them?'”
Jonston wrote an open letter to FIFA president Sepp Blatter on the subject, in which he added: "I am risking my reputation and goodwill within certain football circles by writing this to yourself and anybody else who is interested in the Jabulani ball issue and why its endorsement by FIFA could ruin the game as we now know it."
A couple of years ago, Italy legend Roberto Baggio launched a scathing attack on modern football, complaining that skill had “disappeared”, and that “only in South America do they play with the authentic spirit of football”.
Sepp Blatter must listen
Baggio is absolutely correct, and it is time that all true football lovers get together and demand an end to plastic balls. We need a mass revision of at least 10 years back to a time where through passes, long shots, free kicks, chips and other beautiful moves were an art. As this Goal documentary produced by Peter Staunton and myself concludes: “FIFA reached its peak in 1982 with the Adidas Tango”, it’s about time we start using proper balls again or else we may as well rename the game from Association Football to Playground Football.