All Africa can get kick out of Robot Dave’s’ new ball

WHATEVER will they think of next? An old aunt of mine regularly marvelled at whatever the latest sensation was. She d have certainly done so on learning the footballs at this summer s South African World Cup finals will be a new type, resulting from lengt

WHATEVER will they think of next? An old aunt of mine regularly marvelled at whatever the latest sensation was.

She'd have certainly done so on learning the footballs at this summer's South African World Cup finals will be a new type, resulting from lengthy scientific experimenting involving a robot leg.

Known as "Dave" to Loughborough University's Sports Technology Institute's boffins, the leg tirelessly fires prototype footballs at up to 90 mph into a wind tunnel.

The scientists, working with sports equipment giants Adidas, have developed the perfectly designed ball we'll be seeing for the first time come June.

Not leather, of course. Nor 18-panelled, like those I first knew 70 years ago - the ones which, when seriously wet, you headed at your peril.

But at least those looked like footballs. For old-timers like me, today's highly coloured and patterned jobs suggest the beach rather than soccer.

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Cricketers taking the field in what look like their jim-jams, has the same effect.

That "Dave's football", the most advanced the game has had, will make its bow in South Africa I find a rich irony.

A few years ago Madam and me were in another part of that vast continent, Zambia.

Main focus of the trip was to see that country's side of the Victoria Falls, it being the something-or-other anniversary of Dr Livingstone discovering them.

The much else we also saw included a group of small villages, whose chief was, by all accounts, admirably balancing his people's advancement with not hurling them headlong into the 21st century, and destroying proven tradition.

As ever, the world over, it was the nippers who put the icing on the cake that interesting day.

Eyes round, they trailed silently along behind us, hanging on our every word and move.

When we sat down for a palm beer they grouped, fidgeting, a few yards away.

One clutched some sort of ball. It took repeated gestures to break the ice and get him to throw it at me.

Too late I realised it wasn't any kind of ball I knew. As I took it on an instep it felt weight-wise very like how the old panelled leather of my youth used to be when sodden.

Examination showed it to be also something of a work of art. With no cover in the accepted sense, it seemed to be entirely made of all kinds of vegetation, compressed tightly into a spherical shape.

Despite the heaviness, it was about half football size. Keepy-uppy with it was beyond me.

The youngsters, all bare-footed, were delighted to show me how, no sweat. I was sweating all right by the end of the impromptu kickabout.

Afterwards, though, I couldn't get those kids and their makeshift football out of my mind. I remembered the gloom that descended on our gang halfway through the war when the village cobbler told us our football was finally beyond repair, having suffered one too many barbed wire encounters. A hand grenade was easier to come by than a new football.

On the way home we were in the same Lusaka hotel as a Botswana football club. Upshot was our scrounging a well-used football off them in exchange for our support at their next day's friendly with Lusaka Eagles.

Well before that the scuffed football, in an addressed black plastic bag, was on its six-hour bus run to Falls' villages.

A while later we got a letter from the chief.

He enclosed a photo of what must have been every nipper in his five villages, posed with the ball and all grinning fit to bust.

You can bet your boots that ball has by now long been kicked for a last time, just like our one was back in 1943.

But again like ours, only after giving untold fun.

If the World Cup big-wigs have a ha'porth of get up and go they'll send umpteen of their ultra-modern new balls, suitably inscribed, all round Africa to such communities as that Zambian one.

There, it could be the best bit of bonding since the good Doctor's time.

A final, less charitable thought occurs. The Loughborough-developed ball is presumably English.

Which means when England get knocked out in South Africa, they can pick it up and say "It's our ball and we're taking it home."

More than one tussle in our village ended on that sour note, I can tell you.

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