June 16, 2014 at 12:07 PM ET
What does it take to stop the best soccer players in the world from acting like mischievous sixth-graders? Turns out a simple can of vanishing foam does the trick.
Making its World Cup debut, the special foam, which looks like shaving cream, is being sprayed on the field by referees to prevent any shenanigans when it comes to plays known as free kicks. Most casual soccer fans, as well as fans of David Beckham's general hotness, know the free kick ("bend it like Beckham") as the signature of the retired British star, who scored over one wall of defenders after another during his brilliant career.
Technically, a free kick means a team can score without the ball having to touch another player. The defense usually sets up a wall of players to try to block the kick. The vanishing spray enters the game when each team sets up for the kick, which comes on a re-start of play. You can be sure the spray will make an appearance on Monday night when the United States plays its World Cup opener against Ghana, which has beaten the Americans in each of the last two World Cups.
Like a grammar school gym class, every time the referee turns his back, each side tries to bend the rules and give the palms-up, "what are you talking about?" look when it's obvious they're messing with the rules. So while the referee is making sure the wall of defensive players trying to block the kick is the rule-mandated 10 yards away from the ball, the player on the other team taking the kick may decide to take some liberties and nudge the ball forward or backward a few precious inches in order to get a better kick.
To combat the cat-and-mouse game, the referee sprays a circle of foam around the ball to mark exactly where it must be kicked from, and then paces off 10 yards and uses the foam to mark the line the defenders can't cross. The foam then disappears quickly so that it doesn't become a distraction on the field.
While this is the first time the vanishing spray has made an appearance at a World Cup, it's not new to high-level soccer. It was first used at the 2011 Copa America tournament and has also been used in U.S.-based Major League Soccer and at various FIFA events. The name of the product is 9:15, which is the 10-yard distance between the ball and the defender wall in meters.
It was developed by Argentina-based journalist Pablo Silva, who went nuts when playing in pick-up games and defenders kept creeping forward to block free kicks, according to the Associated Press. He collaborated with a team of chemists to create the foam. Referees were also given instruction in how to properly use it.
"If you hold it too high, the line is too thin and disappears quickly, and if you hold it too close, it's too thick. So you have to delicately draw with it," Silva told the AP. "It's not harmful to the players, the field or the ozone."