Subbuteo is the brand name for a series of games developed by an Englishman, Peter Adolph, beginning in 1947 with a table football game. Other subbuteo products over the years included versions of table rugby, table cricket, table hockey, speedway and even angling. It is the table football game, however, which continues to be synonymous in most people’s minds with the subbuteo brand.
Subbuteo table football was by no means an entirely original game. In particular it shared – some would say “stole” – many of the features of an earlier game known as NewFooty. Invented in 1920, NewFooty, like subbuteo, involved the flicking of small, roughly human-shaped figurines at a ball in order to propel it forward. The flat figurines were inserted into semi-spherical bases (plastic in subbuteo, lead in NewFooty) which had the dual advantage of helping keep the figurines upright and enabling them to be propelled forward, either in a straight line or with varying degrees of swerve. Unlike the other playing figures the goalkeeper was not flicked but was attached to a wire which extended under the goal and by means of which could be manipulated to execute saves.
The emergence of subbuteo spelt the end of the road for NewFooty, partly because NewFooty had never been the subject of a patent, but chiefly because subbuteo proved itself to be a superior game. Whereas in NewFooty the heavy, lead-based players could only be flicked a short distance, and accuracy was difficult to achieve, the much lighter subbuteo figures could be propelled accurately over long distances, and it was also possible to achieve close control of the ball which the heavier NewFooty bases made virtually impossible. Marketed as “the replica of association football” subbuteo became precisely that to whole generations of boys (and the occasional girl) growing up in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s.
By the 1960s NewFooty had disappeared (or, more accurately, been bought out by Adolph) and subbuteo was progressing in leaps and bounds. The first three-dimensional playing figures appeared during the sixties and within a decade it was possible to purchase teams in almost two hundred different colour combinations. In addition, there was an ever expanding array of accessories such as corner flags, spectators, grandstands, terracing, scoreboards, even floodlights. Box sets of various types were also available, from the basic Continental Display Edition which included the bare minimum needed to play the game – two teams, plus goals and balls – to deluxe World Cup Editions. To coincide with the FIFA World Cup in West Germany in 1974 subbuteo produced every schoolboy of the day’s wet dream, the Munich World Series Edition which contained a match scoreboard, floodlights, half time scoreboard, line and corner flags, continental balls, world cup goals, international teams, TV tower, TV camera with cameramen, TV monitor and commentator, referee and linesmen, corner kick figures, throw-in figures, league balls, ball boys, playing cloth, fence surround, club flag, log book and wallet, referee’s whistle, manager and trainer, photographers, ambulance and police set, mascot, coach, reserves bench set, interchangeable goalkeepers, number sheets and reams of literature.
Impressive as these accoutrements might seem it was the game itself that was subbuteo’s principal selling point. Despite numerous attempts by rivals to come up with more attractive alternatives, when it came to fluidity of play and the levels of genuine skill required to master it subbuteo was in a league of its own.
The 1980s saw Subbuteo Sports Games (SSG), Peter Adolph’s company, being taken over by toy manufacturer Waddington’s. Adolph was retained by the company as its managing director but one wonders how much input he had into some of the developments which occurred over the ensuing decade, principal among which was the burgeoning internationalisation of the subbuteo brand, and in particular its table football manifestation. On the face of it, this might seem like a positive step, but some aspects of the way in which it was handled left a sour taste in many a mouth. The world authority which SSG set up – the Federation of International Subbuteo Associations (FISA) – had no elected officials or directors, and was arguably nothing more than a marketing tool for Waddington’s. The World Cups and European Championships it organised seemed to have promotion of the brand as their primary raison d’être, with the actual competitive side of the game of comparatively minor importance. The vast majority of the best players refused to have anything to do with FISA in any case, preferring to establish their own independent associations. Whereas FISA insisted on the use of 00 scale subbuteo equipment in its tournaments many of the sport’s better players preferred the old, flat celluloid figures, which they believed allowed for a more controlled and technically adept style of play.
Although by the 1980s most countries had two, rival associations, the basic way in which the game was played had altered little. The ability to flick players so that they curled around any obstacles was the pre-eminent, one could almost say the defining skill in both camps. However, curling was achieved much better and more accurately with flats than 00 scale figures which, as has been noted, was a major reason that the majority of subbuteo’s better players preferred to use flats. Not all did, however, and in the early eighties some leading Italian players who favoured 00 scale figures came up with an idea that was to revolutionise the sport. By applying small amounts of household cleaner to the bases of their playing figures they found that they were able to flick them accurately over amazing distances, albeit only in a straight line (i.e. no swerving). Overnight, advocates of the 00 scale figures were able to grasp the initiative from their flats-favouring counterparts, and the game of subbuteo table soccer was altered quite drastically and irrevocably. Soon, teams were being manufactured with flatter, lower bases to facilitate the long, straight flicking game, as well as enhance the ability to chip when shooting for goal. The rules of play altered little, but the new, revolutionary style of flicking introduced by the Italians, and later perfected by Switzerland’s Willy Hoffman, created what was to all intents and purposes a “whole different ball game”.
Nowadays, the sport – if it can be called that – of table football is played according to various sets of rules, with some people preferring the old “polish free” style, and others unable to conceive of starting a match without having spent several minutes vigorously polishing the bases of their playing figures. Some people derive enjoyment from both styles of play, and it is at least arguable that it is better to have two different versions of table football in existence than none at all. Co-existence is, at present, relatively harmonious, and as long as this remains the case then the game has every chance of surviving, if not perhaps thriving to the extent that its slowly dwindling band of advocates might wish.