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The vanishing millions

The vanishing millions

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Vanishing spray, the stuff which referees use to mark out distances for free kicks, has become part of football. But now there’s a monumental fight over who owns the patent to it.


Transcript

Hi, I’m Andrew and this is the Playmaker.

One story, every day, to make sense of the world of football.

Today, how referees’ vanishing spray could end up costing FIFA $100 million.

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What you’ve got over there is another thing referees are going to have in Brazil, which is the ‘vanishing spray’. Have you seen this? Where referee will have it, and it sprays a line on the pitch that vanishes within a minute, so that the wall doesn’t creep forward at free-kicks.

Jack Whitehall – Backchat, BBC

Cast your minds back to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

While most of us were wondering if it was Neymar’s time to shine and if England would be able to get out of a group including Italy and Uruguay, some were captivated  by football’s latest innovation that was being introduced by the men in black.

I’m talking about the referee’s vanishing spray. 

It was the can of what looked like shaving foam that referees would spray onto the pitch to ensure the defending team didn’t cheat at free-kicks by shuffling nearer the player on the ball.  

It was one of those “why-didn’t-we-do-this-sooner?” inventions.

High fives all round?  You’d think so.  But that was before the lawyers got involved.  

And boy, have they got involved!  Because the people who originally manufactured the spray have just won a court case which could cost FIFA, the world football’s governing body, $100 million.

The story of vanishing spray actually starts at the turn of the millennium, with a  Brazilian football fan called Heine Allemagne.  Frustrated by players’ relentless encroachment at free-kicks, he thought referees needed help to ensure players didn’t cheat.  What if they could draw a line in the sand, so to speak?   

He started off with a sort of shaving foam prototype before getting a local cosmetics firm to make a product that would be visible for two minutes without damaging the players or the pitch.

The first versions of the product were called Spuni – from the Portuguese word ‘espuma’, which means foam.

He took it to the Brazilian football federation, and by 2001 it was being used in professional games in Brazil.  In 2002, it got its first patent.

The patenting was important, as we’ll see.

Around the same time, an Argentinian man called Pablo Silva was working on a similar product. He’d also created a prototype that was being tested in the Argentine leagues by 2004.

Silva and Allemagne then joined forces. They knew they were onto something  but football – a truly global game – couldn’t just have a product that was going to be used only in Argentina and Brazil. 

With the help of Julio Grondona – a big wig in Argentinian football and FIFA – the product, now known as 9.15 Fair Play spray, was piloted at  various tournaments before getting its big break in the 2014 World Cup.

“So here it is the famous magic spray that referees are using in this World Cup. We’re joined by a professional Brazilian referee, Daniel Wilson. Daniel, is this a good idea?”

“Yes!”

BBC News

It was a success.  But financially, Allemagne and Silva hadn’t benefited that much from their invention.  They’d donated the cans used at the tournament.

The relationship with FIFA soon turned sour. 

Silva said FIFA offered them half a million dollars for the patent – a number he described to The Athletic as being ‘almost offensive’ given how much money they’d already spent on patents and development.

The pair then accused FIFA of essentially taking the idea and allowing other manufacturers to create their own version of the sprays.  According to Silva,  the relationship became hostile: “They treated us in such a way which forced us to take them to court,” he said.

9.15 Fair Play had patents in 44 countries, and in 2017 it started court proceedings against FIFA in Brazil.

They won. The judge banned FIFA from using sprays during the 2018 Russian World Cup and ordered them to pay a fine of £10,000 for every game the order was ignored.

FIFA ignored the judge, arguing they didn’t fall under the jurisdiction of Brazilian courts.  

After protracted legal proceedings, Brazil’s High Court of Justice decided last month that the 9.15 Fair Play spray was the original, and FIFA had been infringing its patent.

The outcome could be severe for FIFA when you consider how many games  FIFA have staged since 2018, including the World Cup in Russia.  

Add in interest, and legal fees, and you get close to $100 million. 

FIFA, who’ve fought the case at every stage, have said they intend to appeal against the latest judgement and they are confident of victory.  It’s worth noting that in 2020 a court ruled in their favour on a commercial issue, saying the patents were unenforceable. 

Just because a Brazilian court has ruled in favour of 9.15 Fair Play might not mean that courts in other parts of the world will follow suit.  

They are the giants of the game but, as we know with football, sometimes it’s the minnows who win.  

Today’s episode was written by Andrew Butler, and produced by Imy Harper.