In the first essays in his series on technology and sports officiating, media scholar Markus Stauff argued that technological innovations have been integrated into modern sports from the very start. Then why, he asked, have leagues and governing bodies – and even fans – been wary of allowing referees to consult the stadium Jumbotron or a photo on a sideline smartphone? In the final essay in the series, Markus looks at one new technology that referees have adopted, with success: vanishing spray. Although simple, and even somewhat comic, the white foam points the way to significant changes in sport.
One of my favorite scenes of last year’s men’s World Cup in Brazil was not a tackle, a trick, or a goal. It was an instance of a referee making a ruling on the field. Seventy-five minutes into the opening game between Spain and Netherlands, the referee gave a free kick to Spain. Following the newly introduced practice for this World Cup, he pulled a can from a holster attached to his belt and sprayed a line of foam on the grass, marking the ten-yard distance where the Dutch defenders had to remain before the kick. The white substance from the referee’s can also covered the toe-cap of Dutch defender Bruno Martins Indi, who immediately gestured his indignation towards the referee. Condensed in a gif, the scene went viral, at least in the Netherlands.
The brief episode can be taken as an allegory of the commodification of soccer: A player is outraged not by a foul or a wrong decision but by the referee soiling his precious shoes, presented in countless commercials as both fashion objects and marvels of technology. Yet the scene is also an insightful example of how the ruling of soccer (and of sports more generally, I would argue) has been transformed through technological innovation. Vanishing spray provokes reflection about what happens when the usually static and solid lines marking all kinds of sports become mobile and ephemeral.
As I’ve argued in the first two essays of this series, the history of modern sport is one of changing technologies used to rule the games. Vanishing spray is a remarkable addition to the heterogeneous collection of stop-watches and whistles, flags and coded gestures, instant replay and Hawk-Eye technology. After all, drawing a line is not only constitutive for nearly all sports but also one of the most basic practices of human culture. Through drawing a line in the ground with the plough, the difference between nature and culture was constituted; through further materialization of that line, such as by a fence, a piece of land was guarded and marked as a property. What does it mean when the lines we draw to bring order to sports can be moved from place to place, and fade away in minutes?
Football officials offered a number of reasons for the introduction of vanishing spray: It was supposed to increase the number of goals from free-kicks, since it guarantees enough space for the shooter (the conversion rate of free-kicks was pretty low during the World Cup, and I haven’t found any statistical proof that vanishing spray has actually led to more goals). The sprayed line was also supposed to protect the flow of the game. The tenacious efforts of referees to keep defenders at the required distance before free-kicks often delays the action, but with the ten-yard line visible on the grass, the referee no longer has to waste time corralling drifting players. Additionally, the vanishing spray would also be used to mark the right spot of the ball, thereby taming all efforts of the shooter to covertly put the ball closer and closer to the goal while pretending to avoid ditches in the grass. Most basically, vanishing spray makes a specific situation of the game more accountable: Before, the distance between ball and defenders, and therefore also the ruling of the players’ behavior, was a matter of intuition – now, a defender crossing the line gets a yellow card. The foam line reduces ambiguity.
Vanishing-spray technology was already used before 2014 in some South American competitions and was officially tested by FIFA during the 2013 Confederation Cup in Brazil. Since 2014, it has been used in most major national leagues of Europe as well as the UEFA Champions League. In contrast to the controversial goal-line technology that uses digital video to detect if a ball actually crossed the goal line, vanishing spray came without much resistance – not least because it is a cheap and artisan-like solution, one that doesn’t overload the game with too much high tech. Vanishing spray was not made part of the universally standardized laws of the game, but rather its application is decided upon by the organizers of a league or tournament. Nevertheless, it can be considered a timely and innovative addition to the other lines on the field, which actually are defined by the laws of the game.
The permanent lines on the soccer pitch – the sidelines and goal lines, the halfway line and the penalty area – have been stable for decades, but they took quite some time historically to be established. John Bale’s book Landscapes of Modern Sport has an insightful graphic showing the development of the soccer pitch from the 1860s to 1937 in several steps. At the sport’s origins, the given physical space (a particular yard or a piece of land) delineated the space of the game. Later, when football became an attraction for spectators, the audience itself acted as the boundary of the playing field. Visible lines delineating an inside from an outside and clearly separating players and spectators became standard in the 1880s. Additional lines were quickly added inside the delineated area, segmenting the space of the game to allow for a more differentiated set of practices and also a more differentiated ruling of the game – for example, a tackle inside the lines of the penalty area was a different thing than a tackle outside of these lines. By 1909 most of the lines we know today were in place, with the penalty arc later added in 1937. Similar to the role of vanishing spray in a free-kick situation today, the arc was intended to keep players at a ten-yard distance during a penalty kick.
Lines thus achieve several things. First of all, they demarcate a space regulated by specific rules that don’t apply outside of the space. In his Allrounder essay about violence in American football, Andrew Moore pointed out how important this distinction between inside and outside is for defining behavior that would be considered violent anywhere beyond the playing space. I would add, however, that even if a visible line demarcates the field, the distinction between inside and outside, throughout the history of each sport, has been a constantly contested area of exchange rather than a fixed border.
Second, and most important for the case of vanishing spray, lines create a shared visibility for athletes, referees, and spectators. Thus, they are the main reference point for understanding the game – and for opposing interpretations of situations. The lines enable the referees to judge players’ behavior, but they also allow the audience to criticize the referee.
This becomes especially obvious if we consider soccer’s most notorious rule, the offside. Not so different from baseball’s strike zone, the rule essentially is based on an imaginary line, which is monitored by the referees without being visible for players or audience. In soccer, the imaginary offside-line is supposed to be safeguarded by the referee’s two assistants, who are required not only to run up and down the sideline throughout the match but also to position themselves on a visual line with the second-last player of the defending team so that they can judge if the opposing team passes the ball forward to an attacking player standing closer to the goal. On television, of course, this imaginary line is added digitally to instant replays to better second-guess the assistants’ judgments. While there doesn’t seem to be a technical solution for making the offside line visible for everybody during the game, vanishing spray does something comparable. Therefore, the white foam sprayed from a can figures as a decisive moment in the history of the game: It materializes and thus makes visible a line that formerly was only indicated by gestures and decisions of the referee.
Third, the lines on a field segment the playing space, thereby specifying the kind of behavior within those divided areas and allowing for different roles and tactics to develop. This increasing spatial segmentation and differentiation connect the history of sports to other social developments and cultural practices. Philosopher John Searle refers to the lines used in sports to exemplify his definition of institutions. According to Searle, institutions consist in the collective assignment of functions to people, objects – or lines for that matter – which go beyond their actual capacities. Materially, a ball can cross the sideline of a pitch and the players can follow after it and continue playing. But as an institutional demarcation, the line prevents the players from playing in the space beyond it. Following Searle’s theory, vanishing spray functions to establish an institutional demarcation. In contrast to the offside rule with its imaginary line, the execution of a free kick gains additional institutional solidity. Even if the foam ends up on the-toe cap of a player every now and then, it contributes to a visible – if short-term – organization of space in such a way that the space itself structures the possible (and rule-bound) behavior.
With both vanishing spray and the digital lines that explicate rules on television, the usually static and solid lines structuring all kinds of sports have now become mobile and ephemeral – on the screen and on the pitch itself. This development has a broader cultural significance. Sport is an area of modern life where we see the most conspicuous practice of drawing lines. This reliance on lines, however, also gives sport a somewhat outdated, old-fashioned character. French philosopher Gilles Deleuze famously stated in the 1992, “Everywhere surfing has already replaced the older sports.” The implication was that the sports which developed in the nineteenth century, with their well-defined spaces and fixed lines, belong to the disciplinary society characterized by institutions like prisons, schools, and factories, while the looming society of control is based on open environments and the surveillance of contingent movement.
But Deleuze might have underestimated the flexibility of lines in sports. Throughout their history, these lines have always been porose. They do not work as strict boundaries but rather as zones of intensified trespassing – by substitutes, by coaches communicating with athletes through gestures or wireless microphones, by the battle calls (and invective) of fans, and by media technology capturing images and sound. With the use of vanishing spray, I would argue, sport shows itself ready to participate in the mobile and ephemeral mechanisms of post-disciplinary power.
Markus Stauff is a member of the media studies department at the University of Amsterdam. The first two essays in his series “Technology & the Referee” are also available on The Allrounder. Markus is on Twitter at @.