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That Weird White Spray They Use In Soccer: An Investigation

The vanishing white spray market in soccer is about to get a little bit more cutthroat with the introduction of a new competitor who is looking to take over.
December 9, 2014, 1:35pm
Photo by HenryWortel via WikiMedia Commons

Someone assessing the breakout stars of the 2014 World Cup would likely point to such players as Colombia's James Rodriguez, Germany's Mario Goetze, or even the entire Belgium national team as having dazzled during the competition.

But the true star of the 2014 World Cup was a little spray can that referees carried in their pockets and took out during stoppages. At this point, the ref would press down on a nozzle and spray out a foamy residue to draw a line on the grass that players were not supposed to cross.

Then, after only a few moments, the line would magically disappear.

Read More: Let's Kill FIFA Before FIFA Kills Soccer

The effect was mystifying. Every time the spray came out, it was one of those "how did they do that" moments. The spray—which had been in use in many countries, including Mexico, prior to the World Cup—became one of the bigger talking points of the competition.

Part of the spray's popularity lay in that it lived in an almost philosophical universe. It existed and then suddenly it didn't. It disappeared without leaving a trace of what had come before. And that was the allure. Its existence was never supposed to matter. The spray's purpose was to mark a time and a place at a certain time and place and then it was supposed to go away forever.

Who couldn't use a magic metaphysical line to divide things every now and then in their everyday life? (i.e. "hey ex girlfriend, please do not cross into this part of town marked by the white line on Tuesdays and Thursdays.")

Photo by EggHead06 via WikiMedia Commons

The spray in some form or another has existed for almost 15 years, mostly in use in South America. An Argentine journalist named Pablo Silva—with the help of some chemists—invented the most popular incarnation of the spray in 2008. Silva's "9-15" spray—after several test runs in FIFA sponsored competitions—was the spray that would end up being used during this year's World Cup.

In several interviews, Silva said he felt as if he himself had made it to the World Cup alongside other famous Argentines: Diego Maradona. Lionel Messi. Pablo Silva.

And yet, despite all the publicity, Silva has been unable to corner the market. Shipping costs have made it expensive to bring the 9-15 spray to all parts of the world. And a German inspection agency recently declared that the 9-15 spray was not completely environmentally sound.

So for now, Comex dominates the Mexican market, the European market mostly uses TimeLimit from Sweden, and some parts of the United States use a product called Penalty Marker.

But the fight to become the premier vanishing spray in soccer is about to get a little more cutthroat.

Albert Montalvo's RefSpray has recently entered the market. And RefSpray has already gotten good initial feedback. Montalvo, a former U.S. Soccer federation referee, said that MLS is reviewing his product for possible league use. FIFA told Montalvo that they are currently reviewing standards for the burgeoning commercial vanishing spray market and that they will consider RefSpray for possible approval.

"My ultimate goal is to provide Refspray to the grassroots soccer community," Montalvo said. "Yeah, if MLS or the English Premier League or even FIFA [picked it up] then it would be great. But at that point it becomes more of an ego thing."

When Montalvo first posited a plan for his own vanishing spray in 2012 he didn't even know where to start his research. All he knew was that the U.S. needed its own vanishing spray.

"It was just a mess," Montalvo said. "Not being a chemist I didn't know if I should check Google and the Internet for 'chemical companies' or 'bottling companies' or 'pharmaceuticals.' I had no idea. Eventually I just got lucky off one of my searches. "

At that point, Montalvo had to convince one of these companies that the product was worth making. The first obstacle was that of course the spray is a niche product with a limited application: soccer matches. But even that could be a lucrative business. About $200 million per year is spent on soccer accessories in the U.S.

Eventually, Montalvo convinced Sprayway, an aerosol product company based in Addison, Illinois, that a vanishing spray could return a large profit. Sprayway already had a chemical composition for a product that disappeared soon after being sprayed. Only small tweaks were needed to make the product viable for use during soccer matches. Montalvo's product was fast-tracked after Sprayway's board members saw Silva's 9-15 spray during the World Cup.

RefSpray went on sale in October. And so begins the battle for control of the elusive vanishing stray market in the United States. One competitor for RefSpray may be Silva's 9-15 spray. Silva applied for a U.S. patent for a vanishing soccer spray in 2008. But Montalvo doesn't anticipate Silva's patent application will interfere with his product.

"Every attorney that I've spoken to says he's going to have a difficult job getting it approved in the U.S," Montalvo said. "My formula is different than his anyway. It's not even close to matching."

Montalvo said his product has a brighter tint than Silva's spray. Also, RefSpray's nozzle is shaped differently than other sprays. Most importantly, Montalvo said, his spray is environmentally safe. Additionally, Montalvo has developed a shoulder sleeve—patent pending—for refs to store the product during games.

And you thought all vanishing sprays were the same.

"I asked my manufacturer to make sure it was as bright as possible," Montalvo said. "There's that extra tint to it that makes it stand out more especially during night games. Mine is a wide-angle spray as opposed to a foam, which is the 9-15 product. Theirs is a very thick foam. Mine comes out as a wide-angle spray."

In order to maximize his $30,000 investment in RefSpray, Montalvo is trying to come up with other possible uses for the product. The spray's formula could be tweaked to change the disappearance time.

Some possibilities include uses in animal behavioral training and any type of athletic training. But the idea that has Montalvo most excited would be to market a vanishing spray to parents for use in disciplining their children. A white line that eventually disappears in a few moments could mark "timeouts" for children.

The theory is that misbehaving children would be kept at bay while watching the white line disappear. It sounds like a silly idea, at first. Then again, this magic spray has already mesmerized adults for months.