Why Germany has a big problem with that little can of vanishing spray

Last week, one of Germany’s Technischer Überprüfungsvereins (TÜV), a safety monitoring agency, ruled the free kick spray made famous during the World Cup, called 9-15 Fair Play Limit, did not meet German safety standards. Considered a successful innovation when introduced to soccer this summer, its use is forbidden inside the Federal Republic. As a result, you won’t find Bundesliga referees running around with the little canister, clearly marking where players can and cannot stand.

If you know Germany, you’ll recognize the irony here. German culture values clarity and directness in a way that sometimes seems extreme to outsiders. It’s not uncommon, upon first arriving in Germany, for people from other cultures to feel mildly offended by perceived curtness. Don’t waste time with a flowery preamble; just give me the information. Soccer is a game filled with ambiguity, and it’s the referee’s job to bring order and clarity to that ambiguity. And, well, you can’t get more clear and direct than drawing a line on a field, delineating a temporary boundary. The spray seemed a perfect fit for the Bundesliga and for Germany. But the TÜV has spoken, and rules are rules.

This is where things get interesting: While the spray might be forbidden in the Bundesliga, UEFA has approved the use of the spray in European competitions. When Schalke hosts Maribor in the Champions League, the referee has a decision to make: to use the spray and violate German law or to not use the spray and leave players and fans the world over unsure of where, exactly, the free-kick takers should place the ball and the defenders should stand.

Spanish referee Carlos Velscao Carballo, best known for his part in this summer's World Cup quarterfinal meeting between Brazil and Colombia, risks a fine of up to 55 euros if he uses vanishing spray tonight in Gelsenkirchen. (Photo: AP Photo/Armando France)

Referee Carlos Velscao Carballo, seen here at Euro 2012, is best known for his part in this summer’s World Cup quarterfinal meeting between Brazil and Colombia. The Spaniard risks a fine of up to €55 if he uses vanishing spray tonight in Gelsenkirchen. (Photo: AP Photo/Armando France)

Bild, the German tabloid, contacted the Gelsenkirchen municipal authority to find out what kind of consequences awaited a referee who used the spray, and received a no-nonsense answer: “Should the city of Gelsenkirchen become aware that an unauthorized spray has been used, the clerk’s office will initiate a misdemeanor procedure.” The resulting fine would be “between 5 and 55 euro.” (Bild notes that Spanish referee Carlos Velasco Carballo will earn 4,800 euros for tonight’s game and should be able to cover it.)

What is the actual problem with the spray? According to the TÜV, the spray contains parabens, which are thought to be “hormonally active.” (The FDA’s website describes parabens as a type of preservative common in cosmetics and considers them “safe for use in cosmetic products at levels up to 25 percent.”) Furthermore, the TÜV found the spray’s greenhouse gases were “manyfold” above the legal limit. It is also too-highly flammable. Finally, the can doesn’t have the proper warning labels.

Lutz Michael Froehlich, head of Germany’s referees, told the press the DFB “[has] been in contact already for weeks with other suppliers to find an alternative to the costly import from Argentina.” One wonders why he couldn’t just go down to the corner store and buy a can of shaving cream.

The answer is that an Argentinian named Pablo Silva owns 9-15 Fair Play Limit and the corresponding utility patent. Silva, for his part, doesn’t seem to know quite what all the fuss is about. Interviewed by Bild last weekend, Silva claimed the spray was not a health risk or dangerously flammable. “If the DFB uses the spray from another provider, we will sue,” he warned.

The episode, and the way it’s been covered by the German press (breathlessly), has resulted in a bit of self-reflection among the people of Germany. Another common German stereotype has to do with the country’s love of rules and bureaucracy. But has it all gone too far? Do we really need to sweat a little can of referee spray?

Several German publications have taken a stab at the question of whether the episode is “typically German.” (I’m leaning toward yes. Pablo Silva, when asked, said he had no idea.) I’d be interested in putting the question to tonight’s referee, Carballo. The whole thing is no doubt an unwelcome distraction for him. When he blows his whistle this evening, his actions will carry more weight than normal. Does he flaunt German authority by using 9-15 Fair Play Limit? Does he flaunt patent law by using a can of Gillette? Or does he risk the wrath of UEFA by not using any spray at all and simply walking out the distance and warning the players not to move?

So much for innovation. So much for making the game simpler.