Bryan Robson is in no doubt: the vuvuzela is a weapon. The former Middlesbrough boss offered a stark warning after seeing his Thailand side picked to pieces by South Africa in a World Cup preparation game. “With that noise South Africa will get a big boost and it could be an advantage for them,” Robson insisted after his team’s 4-0 defeat in Nelspruit. But should international teams really be scared of a little noise?
At the 2009 Confederations Cup the vuvuzela made more headlines than the football. The overpowering chorus of horns drowned out TV commentary and made communication between players and coaching staff much more difficult. Japanese players and officials continued calls for the vuvuzela to be banned from the 2010 World Cup after a 0-0 draw in a friendly in Port Elizabeth last November. “We couldn’t hear each other from two metres away,” Japan’s sweeper Tulio explained. “It make it impossible to give or receive orders on the pitch.”
While players are used to dealing with big crowds, the level of noise created by the horns is in a different league. Scientific studies have found that a nearby vuvuzela can create the same amount of decibels as a pneumatic drill or a chainsaw. When you multiply that by 50,000, it becomes pretty hard to hold a conversation on the pitch or to shout orders from the technical area. It seems that this summer’s World Cup will present a unique challenge for its competitors.
There have been suggestions that these conditions will suit the weaker sides in the competition. A wall of noise is the same for both teams - it is a level playing field. The confusion the vuvuzelas can create could add an element of lottery to the game, which will benefit those trying to overcome stronger opponents. The best teams in the world are heavily reliant on good lines of communication between players, especially in defence. If that’s taken away then the whole unit is threatened.
However, it is possible that the noise will only serve to strengthen the sides with the best coaches. Coaching 101 teaches us that a tactician should get his message across before the game, rather than shouting from the sidelines while players are concentrating on the action. By the time his team take to the field at the World Cup, a coach should have communicated his strategy to the players so effectively that they are no longer in need of direction. If things need tuning up, that can be done at half time.
The confusion the vuvuzelas add an element of lottery to the game, which will benefit those trying to overcome stronger opponents.
The truth is that most of the shouting done by coaches during a game is more for their personal benefit than the team’s – it’s more the act of shouting rather than the instructions that matter. Commands such as ‘Shape!’ ‘Thinking!’ and ‘Away!’ that you still hear variants of even at international level probably have limited benefit for a player who’s trying to deal with an advancing Cristiano Ronaldo. So maybe the wall of sound will only emphasise the difference between the top, well-prepared tacticians and the panicked manager trying to do his homework on the bus to the game.
Whether the minnows or the giants benefit, football could be the loser. Without teammates’ calls, players will feel uncertain on the ball, especially in defence, and will be inclined to resort to cautious, simple football. A defender with a striker bearing down on him is much more likely to find Row Z if he can’t be certain of the options he has. Likewise, a defender dealing with a corner or a cross won’t be taking any chances even if his goalkeeper is yelling that the ball is his. We could see an awful lot of balls sent over the stands and a lot less adventurous football.
This summer’s World Cup will be a different kind of test for the contenders. Only a team with an innate understanding between completely focused, mentally strong players will succeed. While every other element of the conditions in South Africa will have been recreated in training, nothing can prepare a team for the vuvuzela effect. How important those pointy horns prove to be remains to be seen…