BERLIN - Julia Probst has a special gift: she can read soccer players’ lips when they speak to one another during games. Her tweets reporting on their exchanges have earned her an ever-growing number of followers on Twitter.
Probst has been deaf since birth -- “deaf and dumb” is often the way this is described, "erroneously," Probst says, because “the only thing that deaf people can’t do is hear. I grew up speaking normally, and I speak very well. People don’t need to know sign language to speak with me.”
Because of her disability, she acquired her lip-reading skill -- and her ability level is so high "you could say that I’m in the Champions League of lip readers,” she says.
(Photo: Julia Probsts Lippenleseservice oder auch Ableseservice Facebook page)
And now she’s going to be translating soccer game exchanges for the millions. German pay-TV channel Sky has signed her on to read the lips in certain choice exchanges. Sky soccer boss Uwe König told Die Welt: “Yes, it’s true, we are going to be using Ms. Probst in post-production, not for every game, but on a regular basis when we think it makes sense.”
The editorial team will send videos to Probst when they want specific exchanges lip-read, and then it will be up to her to decide if she can do it or not. "I have to have be able to see the lips of whoever is speaking very clearly, and there can’t be any visual distortions such as certain effects of light can cause," she says.
So what did Materazzi say to Zidane?
So far, lip reading in soccer reporting has only been used sporadically, for example when a Brazilian TV channel tried to decipher what Marco Materazzi said to Zinedine Zidane at the 2006 World Cup finals that led to the French legend head-butting the Italian defender.
There was another case in 2007, when Bundesliga Dortmund goalkeeper Roman Weidenfeller insulted Schalke striker Gerald Asamoah by calling him a “black pig,” according to a lip reader. Weidenfeller denied having said this, but was nevertheless banned from the sport for three weeks by the German Football Association (DFB).
"I’m really happy about this new assignment," says Probst. "This season promises to be very exciting with Dortmund aiming to become the first team since Bayern München to win three successive league championships.” The excitement quotient might not be as immediate as it is with live blogging or Twitter, she says, but “it’s still a big step for me.”
But doesn’t the new service interfere with player privacy rights? No, because football games are public events, and if player comments aren’t usually overheard, it’s only because of the ambient noise level. In Spanish and Italian soccer reporting, lip readers have been used for a while, and as a result some players have gotten in the habit of placing their hand over their mouth when they speak.
In any case, Sky soccer boss König says: "We will use every precaution in using Ms Probst’s services and will not use anything that we haven’t verified and that could be used against individual players.” Probst has also imposed certain rules on herself: "In a racist case I would help the DFB but the general public doesn’t have to know everything. There has to be some protection for players, too.”
Interest in getting authentic insight into the things soccer players say aloud on the field is apparently considerable. On Twitter, over 22,000 people follow Probst (@EinAugenschmaus).
In 2008 the RTL TV channel sought lip readers who could tell them if members of the German national team really knew the words to the national anthem.
Outside Germany, the services of lip readers are often sought, for example during the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton when a forensic lip reader reported that William said “You look beautiful” as his bride stepped up to the altar. Not that that’s the kind of remark Julia Probst is expecting to get from players on the pitch.