Help for Referees, in a Can

From the New York Times:

SÃO PAULO, Brazil — Even casual soccer fans may already be familiar with the sport’s infamous “magic spray,” the ubiquitous mist that team trainers use on seemingly every type of injury to help stricken — or, as they are occasionally known, faking — players recover from grave maladies without missing a single kick.

Beginning with Thursday’s opening match of the World Cup here, however, the magic spray will have a new partner in mystical vapor: the vanishing spray.

This latest addition to the aerosol array is not a medical tool to get players moving but rather an official’s tool to keep players back. At various points during every game, the referee will instruct one team to stay at least 10 yards away from the ball while the other team prepares to take a free kick. In the past, the referee would make a show of stepping off the required distance before indicating with his hand where the defenders, who often bunch together as a wall, had to stand.

This display would then be followed by a familiar, wearying routine: As soon as the referee turned away, the players in the wall would shuffle forward, as if wiping their dirty shoes on a floor mat. The subversive shimmying effectively made the 10-yard rule more like 7 or 8, which is a significant difference for attackers hoping to curl a shot around the wall. If the referee noticed and had to readjust the wall, the inevitable delay — particularly if it happened multiple times each half — could make a game feel interminable.

Now, the officials have (foamy) help. Once the referee calls for a free kick, he whips out a tiny can that he carries in a special belt, then sprays a bit of what looks like shaving cream at the spot where the kick should be taken before quickly pacing off the 10 yards. He then draws a line on the ground to show where the wall must go. If a player moves in front of the line before the ball is kicked, the referee can easily show the offender a yellow card for encroachment.

It is a fast, clear and obvious way to handle the situation, and agronomists need not be concerned: Games with a heavy foul count do not leave fields looking as if they have been finger-painted on because by the time the players run back in the other direction, the spray has disappeared.

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