'It's Heavier ... and Acts Weird'

A new ball supplier wins the distribution contract for Mexico's soccer league. But the ball is a loser.

GO ahead. Tinker with the Constitution. Embrace free trade with the Yanquis. Turn la tierra madre into a haven for Big Mac lovers. But don't fool with the national pastime.

Amigos, a sacred line has been crossed in Mexico.

They've gone and tampered with the holy orb used in professional soccer. In barrios throughout the land, futbol fanatics are stirring from their armchairs. Players are grousing.

"It's better suited for rugby or American football," opines one athlete, between grunting practice shots.

"It's heavier, leaks, and acts weird," says another in a radio interview.

In the opening days of the Mexican League's 1993-94 season, the Soccerball Affair is grabbing local headlines. The fuss is over a change in the official ball.

The Garcis Company underbid the old supplier, Adidas de Mexico, offering to pay the league 120,000 pesos (about $38,500) for the opportunity to distribute 13,000 balls to the league. That's not an exorbitant price for all the unsolicited advertising the company will reap every time there's a close-up of a player booting a winning goal on television or in the newspapers.

The Garcis ball meets regulation standards. It's "hand-sewn, the same weight and measurement as the old ball. And it's made of the best materials in the world," claims the company.

But thanks to the purported performance defects, the Garcis ball is netting a lot of negative publicity. And there's the taint of familial influence, which is not helping the Garcis company's spin control efforts.

One of the owners of Garcis is Jose Antonio Garcia. Mr. Garcia also happens to be the League's Division I president and the vice president of the Federation of Mexican Football - the organization that oversees the league and pockets the official ball payola.

One outraged columnist writes that a public official discovered in this situation would be driven from office. But he laments, "There are no sanctions for members of the private sector that commit these acts ... the image of Mexican soccer remains irredeemably damaged by the meddling of an official to benefit a family company."

There are a few who say the claims of "possessed" balls are merely a sour grapes campaign being led by Adidas. One player who hasn't quite caught the spirit of the scandal said, "It's the same ball, made in Taiwan or Hong Kong. They've just changed the label." In fact, intensive investigation revealed the ball is produced in Pakistan.

In the latest twist, Adidas officials are saying the Garcis ball is a pirated copy of their old "Tango" model used in the 1978 World Cup. Legal action is being considered, Adidas says.

Perhaps, in any other year, the ball brouhaha might have blown over like a brief summer shower. But the Mexican team was playing and practicing with the old ball in May, when it earned a berth in the 1994 World Cup finals for the first time in 15 years. In June, Mexico placed second in the America's Cup, playing against tough South American competition for the first time. And last month, the team won the Gold Cup.

Expectations are running so high for next year's World Cup, the Mexican media is calling their squad the "Dream Team," borrowing a sobriquet from the awesome 1992 US Olympic basketball team.

Mexico's biggest soccer star, Hugo Sanchez (who just signed a contract to play in Spain), had these parting words: "I agree that Jose Antonio Garcia has his rights as a Mexican businessman. But a country is more important than a business. I won't have the pleasure or displeasure of playing with this ball, but every time there's a missed goal, they'll blame the ball."

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