Everything You Need To Know About The Jabulani Ball Controversy

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How did the Jabulani soccer ball become such an important part of soccer history in 2010?

In May 2004, when South Africa beat Morocco and Egypt to emerge as the hosts of the 2010 FIFA World Cup, Adidas went to work to produce what they hoped would be their best soccer ball yet.

Before 2004, the sportswear giants had been producing World Cup balls, with their partnership with FIFA, which began in 1970, resulting in some iconic balls. 

For example, the Telstar ball of Mexico in 1970 was iconic, as was the Azteca ball of 1986, the Fevernova of Korea/Japan in 2002, and the Teamgeist, used in Germany in 2006.

But when it came to the showpiece in South Africa in 2010, Adidas wanted to create something iconic. Their target wasn’t just an artistic marvel but an engineering wonder that would accompany an equally iconic showpiece event set to be held on the African continent for the first time.

Adidas’ idea was to create a ball that would answer to the players and do what they wanted while maximising efficiency. Ordinarily, a soccer ball should do what a player wants from it. 

A winger should be able to deliver an accurate cross into the box for the striker, who should be able to anticipate where the ball will land and how things will turn out if he shoots it well. 

A defender should also easily be able to give a straight, long, and precise pass to a player downfield, and a goalkeeper should be able to somewhat accurately predict the trajectory of a ball while it races towards them. 

With this brief in mind, English engineers at Loughborough University went to work, giving birth to the Jabulani soccer ball. 

Meaning of Jabulani

The 2010 ball was called “Jabulani” which means ‘rejoice’ in Zulu, as an homage to the World Cup being hosted in South Africa.

The ball was made from eight spherically molded panels and featured a textured surface, intended to improve aerodynamics. 

According to the maker Adidas, the Jabulani Ball surpassed the Teamgeist ball from 2006 as the roundest, most accurate ball ever played.

The ball had four triangular design elements on a white background. The number ‘11’ was prominent in the ball’s design as Adidas used eleven different colors, representing the eleven starting players in a soccer squad, the eleven official languages of South Africa, and the eleven South African communities.

However, despite the effort put into its design and production, the Jabulani ball had a critical response from the players and fans when it was released for use before the World Cup in 2010.

What Did the Players Say About the Ball?

Although soccer players like Frank Lampard, Kaka and Petr Čech, who were associated with Adidas, had nice things to say about the ball, several others didn’t enjoy their experience with the ball.

For example, after his team’s warm-up win against Saudi Arabia before the tournament, Spain goalkeeper Iker Casillas unfavorably compared the Jabulani to a beach ball.

The goalie, whose side eventually won the tournament, said: “It is very sad that a competition so important as the world championship will be played with such a horrible ball.” 

Casillas wasn’t alone. Italy legend and goalkeeper at the tournament Gianluigi Buffon also voiced his disapproval of the ball, saying: “The new model is absolutely inadequate and I think it’s shameful letting us play such an important competition, where a lot of champions take part, with a ball like this.”

Another goalkeeper who didn’t like the ball was Brazil’s Julio Cesar. He said: “The soccer ball is horrible. It is like one of those you buy in the supermarket.”

Also, England’s goalkeeper in the tournament David James, was more direct in his criticism. “The ball is dreadful,” he said. “It’s horrible.”

Below is a video that shows goalkeepers getting embarrassed by the weight of the Jabulani.

Goalkeepers weren’t the only people to complain, attackers also didn’t fancy the ball, with Brazil forward Robinho declaring “For sure the guy who designed this ball never played soccer.” 

His compatriot Luis Fabiano went into more detail, labelling the ball “very weird”. “All of a sudden, it changes trajectory on you,” he explained. “I think it’s supernatural. It’s very bad.” 

Even Lionel Messi, who is considered a wizard with the ball, didn’t hide his disdain for the Jabulani. The Argentina forward stated, “The ball is very complicated for the goalkeepers and for us (forwards).”

Coaches also added their voice conversation around the 2010 ball, with Argentina coach in 2010 Diego Maradona, complaining that “We won’t see any long passes in this World Cup because the ball doesn’t fly straight.”

Denmark coach Morten Olsen also criticised the ball after his side’s 1–0 friendly defeat at the hands of Australia.

“We played with an impossible ball, and we need to get used to it,” he observed.

The One Player Who Mastered It 

However, amidst this plethora of critical observations, there was a player who seemed to really enjoy the wild, uncontrollable nature of the Jabulani – Diego Forlan. 

The Uruguayan thoroughly enjoyed the tournament in South Africa and wrote his name into World Cup folklore with a series of top goals and performances, which earned him the tournament’s best player, ahead of Wesley Sneijder and David Villa.

Why Was The Jabulani Ball Bad? 

After the World Cup, there were several conspiracies and explanations as to what made the ball bad and why only a few players could master it. 

Some fans claimed that Forlan, who had made the most of the Jabulani, had inside information on how to get the most out of the ball, while others suggested the ball was actually under remote control.

In retrospect, those claims are laughable. However, one of the main issues with the ball seemed to be how light it was. The ball picked up speed after it was struck and seemed to move wildly creating problems for all players and nightmares for goalies.

This YouTube video, for example, highlights the many mishaps of the Jabulani, solidifying some claims by conspiracy theorists that the ball was designed to favor some players.

The Science Behind the Jabulani

The question now is was the Jabulani ball bad? Did Adidas intentionally design the ball to fail?

Although it is true that the Jabulani behaved strangely and appeared to have a mind of its own, there was an explanation for it. 

Adidas wanted to make the best ball but ended up shooting themselves in the foot.

That is according to a guy named Rabi Mehta, who works as an aerospace engineer with NASA. 

In 2010, Mehta did a series of analyses on the movement of the ball using wind tunnel data and found the explanation for Adidas’ failed ball.

According to him: “The issue with the Jabulani ball started in 2006 when the Teamgeist ball was introduced for the World Cup in Germany. 

“Prior to 2006, the traditional soccer ball had 32 pentagonal panels with internal stitching. The Teamgeist had 14 bonded panels, which resulted in a smoother surface.”

The stitching of the ball determines its smoothness, and how smooth it is also determines how easy/difficult it is for the ball to freely move in the air–this is called drag.

According to Mehta, “When one measures the drag force on a ball, the force is relatively high at the lower speeds, but at some critical speed, the drag drops suddenly. This critical speed is determined by the roughness on the ball.”

Put simply, the new design led to an increase in speed, which then resulted in a knuckle-ball effect: volatile swerves and swoops caused by the asymmetry and “roughness” of the ball.

“So for the 2010 World Cup, Adidas introduced the Jabulani with eight bonded panels and aerodynamic grooves and ridges,” Mehta says.

“I am assuming that the goal of the change in design was to decrease the critical speed. But it turned out that the critical speed for the Jabulani ball was around 55mph, even higher than the Teamgeist. So that’s why we had lots of complaints from the players.”

So from the above analysis, we can see why the Jabulani behaved strangely. It was a failed test and was justifiably hated by many players and soccer lovers, including former Liverpool player Craig Johnston. 

Craig Johnston, a former Premier League midfielder and designer of the Adidas Predator ball, strongly disliked the ball and penned an open letter to FIFA. 

“Whoever is responsible for this should be taken out and shot for crimes against soccer,” he said.

FIFA’s Response

In all these things, FIFA and Adidas refused to back down or accept any fault. They stood by the design, insisting that adequate tests had been done. 

“We have created a ball that is small and heavy, allowing for maximum accuracy, perfect grip and exceptionally stable flight,” Adidas head of global public relations Thomas Van Schaik said about the complaints. 


Although there is no categorical evidence to suggest that the design of the Jabulani had an overwhelmingly negative impact on the soccer played in South Africa, there is a feeling things could have been different if the ball was perfect.

Maybe the Netherlands could have won the World Cup, or Argentina and Lionel Messi could have been champions earlier than 2022, when Messi finally won it.

Another theory is that Spain was helped by the Jabulani, as the ball suited their playing style which emphasised short passes.

In all these, many fans consider 2010 amongst the most entertaining, high-quality World Cups, despite the many complaints against the official tournament ball.

Critically, FIFA and Adidas seem to have gotten smarter too, even though they denied any wrongdoing in 2010. 

Since then, we haven’t seen a design similar to the Jabulani at the highest level. 

The Brazuca ball introduced for the 2014 World Cup had six bonded panels but with deeper seams and pimples, resulting in the critical speed of the ball dropping back to around 35mph. 

There were no complaints from the players, nor were there any for the Telstar ball used in 2018, which also had six bonded panels with longer but shallower seams and pimples. 


The Jabulani ball is one of the more unusual controversies that FIFA has faced in its long history. However, it might have had a better chance of success if players had more time to master the ball before the World Cup kicked off in 2010.

Article feature image source: CLF Adidas Jabulani FIFA World Cup 2010 South Africa matchball

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