RIO DE JANEIRO -- On my day off in Rio, I took a stroll toward the south with a friend up to the 11th stop on Leblon. The kings of futvolley live there -- I say "live," as playing futvolley is what they do on that strip of sand from dawn until dusk, and what they continue to do once the floodlights are on.
After three hours of meticulous searching, we took on the couple who seemed by far the weakest one between Gavea and Garota de Ipanema. We were already significantly behind in the game when a desperate shot ended up on the third lane of the Delfim Moreira Avenue. Never have I seen traffic halt so drastically. The bus driver who jammed on the brakes patiently signalled me to pick up the ball regardless of the traffic piling up toward Pao de Acucar, as if not a ball but my child had fallen into the street.
Four years ago Chile's goalkeeper Claudio Bravo said that catching the Jabulani was like trying to catch a beach ball, a rather graphic way to describe the unpredictability of the official 2010 World Cup ball and its tendency to change course during flight. Uruguay's Diego Forlan was the player who adapted most promptly to that peculiar ball and, throughout the tournament, left many goalkeepers scratching their heads and wondering how pointless their study of ball flight paths really seemed. The manufacturers, adidas, took heed and spent the next four years keenly solving it.
Brazuca, the new ball, has deeper stitching than the Jabulani and is completely covered in tiny bumps as if it had been scratched against a grater. Dr. Rabi Mehta, experimental aero-physics branch chief at NASA, said "the materials used, the ball's surface roughness and its distribution determine its aerodynamics, decreasing its knuckling effect," and that "the players should be happier with the new ball. It is more stable in flight and will handle more like a traditional 32-panel ball."
All the technological improvement didn't come in handy for us in our futvolley match at Leblon, but it has certainly done wonders for the World Cup. Goalkeepers no longer complain, and we haven't seen any undesired knuckling, save for a free kick by Italy's Andrea Pirlo as a result of his extraordinary talent alone.
A more predictable ball makes for a more predictable game, which is always welcome in a sport in which a coach's job is to reduce the level of arbitrariness. That is, the game should have more to do with the realization of planned ideas than with mere chance or regular occurrence.
This is precisely what explains the beauty of this World Cup: an idea. Not the ball in itself but the ball as an idea. Spain, already home after crashing the first round, should nevertheless feel proud to still be alive in this tournament through its lingering influence. The most important reason this World Cup is, so far, much more interesting than previous ones is that, regardless of different nuances, systems and strategies, most teams (except Iran, Honduras and Greece) aim to impose themselves on their rivals through ball possession and not by renouncing it.
The ball has made a comeback, and the result is that we are being rewarded with the most vibrant, dynamic, intense and dramatic World Cup in history. Even before the quarterfinals, it is already the tournament with the highest goal average since Spain 1982, and with the lowest disciplinary rate since Mexico 1986. It is also working as an enormous global filter: whoever is not enjoying it by now may very well find a different sport, because they will never like football.
There is another plausible explanation that comes to mind when trying to explain this fantastic World Cup. It wouldn't have to do with ideas or with the drag coefficient of the ball but with some kind of rushed cultural learning, like looking right when crossing a street in London or ordering pasta al dente when in Rome. Maybe this World Cup beats them all simply because bus drivers in Rio de Janeiro are of the opinion that a massive multiple pile-up is preferable to a squashed ball.