|What is Subbuteo® Table Soccer
- History of the Game|
Grab a drink and a snack. This is a bit of a read, but is well
worth your time. Many thanks to former ASA President Gregg Deinhart for for taking the time to track down this information!
Subbuteo is the brand name of a form of table soccer that was
developed in 1947 by an Englishman by the name of Peter Adolph. His game was a refinement and development of a previous table
soccer game that had been first introduced in 1920. That game was called 'NewFooty'. The common principle of both games was
that small figurines with semi-spherical bases that were slightly flattened on the bottom were flicked at a ball to propel
it forward and eventually into the opponent's goal. The defender had a goalkeeper, which was a figure which had a rod attached
to the back of the base, extending through the back of the goal, which allowed manipulation to save shots.
The NewFooty figures were made of lacquered cardboard, which
were inserted into lead bases. This lead made them very hard to flick and they had to be spread around the pitch because they
could not be flicked very far. As well, the figurines were all different, and they had to be used only in their correct position,
i.e. the left-winger could only be positioned on the left wing and not used as a center half.
In 1947 Peter Adolph created his new Subbuteo game, using some
of the new materials that started to be available after the war - plastic! - His figures were hard cardboard inserted into
a plastic base, which was similar to the Keeling model, but more rounded. These figures -- known as 'flats' -- were the basis
of the game right through until the 60s. Their aerodynamic shape allowed them to be 'curled' around opposing figures to touch
the ball. A variety of 00-scale and two-dimensional figures are now available.
The basic principle of Subbuteo was dramatically different from
all other table soccer games at that time, and even to this day. If the player (player being the 'human') kept hitting the
ball with his figures, and the ball did not roll out, or touch an opposing figure, then he retained possession. Each figure
could only be flicked three times in succession. Another figure had to be used. However, you could flick one figure, flick
another, and then flick the original-this all being done, of course, as long as the figure touched the ball. The attacker
also dictated the pace of the game. The defender did not have to sit by and idly watch. For every attacking flick that hit
the ball, the defender could have a defensive flick. With this flick you could not hit any other figure, nor the ball, but
could plug gaps in your defense, or try and force the attacker's path away from the goal. The method of flicking was achieved
without using the thumb or any other finger as a 'spring'. Instead, spring or 'purchase' was effected off the pitch. Deftness
of touch allowed passing and firmer flicks allowed shooting. Each team was composed of 10 field figures and a goalkeeper.
The pitch was originally made from a woolen ex-army blanket, which were available in abundance after the war. Another distinction
of Subbuteo was that a player could only shoot at goal once the ball was in the 'shooting zone'. The pitch was divided into
quarters, and the end section was the shooting zone.
After the creation of the game in the 1940s, the first major
changes to the game occurred in the 1960 with the creation of new Subbuteo figures. These were 00-scale, three dimensional
plastic figures, mounted on a base that was similar in design to the original 'flats' base, but which was hollow, and which
had a metal washer added to give it some stability. The game took off after this, as it was much easier to market it as an
attractive 'realistic' soccer game. Literally every British schoolboy had a Subbuteo set. From there, SSG set out to conquer
the world. Immigrants took the game around the globe, and then wherever soccer (football) was king, there was scope for Subbuteo
to make inroads. In Italy it became very popular, and it strengthened in the low countries.
SSG unashamedly targeted the game at schoolboys aged between
11 and 16. That was their market, and they were astonishingly successful at cornering it. During the 60s and 70s, more players
started to hunger for competition beyond their own school or street league. SSG responded by staging district, county and
national competitions in the UK, and encouraged Subbuteo distributors to do the same in their countries. In 1970 they staged
the first Subbuteo World Cup. Looking back it says volumes that 90 per cent of the publicity of the tournament was about the
'junior' event, while the senior event was barely mentioned. But this was a sign of the future. The 16-year-olds who previously
had dropped the game as being for 'kids', kept playing as they went to university, got jobs, made contact with other countries
and started to treat their 'game' seriously.
In the 60s this had already happened, with the creation of the
European Table football Federation, independent of SSG. The ETF staged its own Europe Cup, considered by all table soccer
players as the hardest event to win -- much harder than the world cup. At the world cup, each nation was permitted one entrant,
while in the Europe Cup they could have two, and the country whose player was the reigning champion could have three. This
meant that tough competitions such as in Belgium, Netherlands, Germany and Switzerland provided 'ace' players who provided
SSG was not too crazy about 'independent' associations and preferred
to control all promotion, organization and tournaments. When in the 80s they were bought out by the giant English firm Waddingtons,
they had even more money to control the development of the game. But the world federation FISA - Federation of International
Subbuteo Associations -- was a sham. It had no elected officials, no directorate, no executive, and no aims. Run by SSG as
part of Waddingtons, it did put on spectacular events such as the European Championships and World Cups right through the
70s and 80s and into the 90s. These were as much marketing exercises for the company as competitive affairs.
What caused friction was exactly this marketing desire. SSG wanted
players to use the latest Subbuteo equipment, and while a majority of players did use the 00-scale equipment, 90 per cent
of the topflight players still used the 'flats', which they considered superior for a more technical game. SSG tournaments
then banned anything but 00-scale, while the ETF continued to stage its tournaments allowing anything: some players even handcrafted
their own 'wooden' figures. But as long as the figures met qualifying criteria, they were accepted.
The result of this was that in many countries, two federations
were created: a SSG federation, which was basically run by the company or a distributor, and an independent federation, usually
aligned with the ETF. In some instances, namely Switzerland, Germany, Austria, there was one federation and it existed in
both camps. The ridiculous thing was that such a small sport was fragmented, with players unable or unwilling to pull together
for the common good. While all this politics was going on, on the playing surface there were tremendous changes -- some of
which eventually led to a great reconciliation. The great problem with the 00-scale figures was that because they were not
as compact or aerodynamically streamlined as the flats, they were not as accurate when trying to 'curl'. As often as not,
the figure would fall away from its intended target.
Also, they were not as stable as the flats, again because they
were not as compact. But they LOOKED great! So many players persisted with them, and struggled to play as best they could.
Then a genius, whose name is lost in the annals of the game, decided that he wanted the figure to be able to be flicked much
better, and he POLISHED the base of his figure, using a household cleaner. This Italian player overnight revolutionized the
Suddenly the clumsy and inaccurate 00-scale figures became a
potent weapon. With the deftness of touch, then figures could slide beautifully across the pitch to caress the ball, rather
than clattering into it and misdirecting it. Players soon realized that combined with polish, if they added weight to the
base they could affect the center of gravity, making the figures better for shooting. At the World Cup in 1982 the Italian
players stunned the table soccer world with their polished and weighted figures. One of the most impressed people was the
Swiss champion, Willi Hoffman, who had been thrashed 7-2 in the semifinal by the eventual winner, Renzo Frignani. Hoffman
went back to Switzerland, analyzed what the Italians had done, worked on his own figures and launched his own devastating
campaign on the world.
Hoffman realized that what the 00-scale figures did best was
slide in straight lines as a result of the polish. He experimented with how far they could do this accurately, and was surprised
to find he could flick the length of the pitch to just delicately touch the ball, teeing himself up for a shot.
He eliminated 'speculative' curling flicks from his game, preferring
a 3/4 pitch long flick to a 2 or 3-cm curl. Possession became important: never needlessly give the ball away. He also found
that by resetting the figurine top into the base at slightly different heights, you could affect the balance and controllability
of the figure, without adding any extra weight.
This allowed the figure to be flicked at the ball from the halfway
mark for a shot. When you consider the figure has a base of diameter 2.5cm and the ball is about 3cm, the accuracy needed
is quite great, when you also consider there are usually other figures in the area and there is also a goalkeeper to beat.
Most players preferred to get in close for a shot at the ball from about 5 to 6 cm. Hoffman perfected 45 to 50 cm flick-shots
which took everyone by surprise, not least because the angles were so hard to defend. In late 1982, about four months after
the world cup, he won the Europe Cup in Switzerland, then retained it in 1983 in Haibach Germany, and 1984 in Verviers, Belgium.
In 1985 he lost the semifinal in a shoot-out, and in 1986 he lost the quarterfinals in a shoot-out. But in 1987 he was back,
winning in Birmingham, England, and 1988 in Vienna. In between he won the world cup in 1986, then lost the semi of the 1990
world cup, but made a vow to win the Europe Cup that year -- which he did in Scotland. But more than just collecting trophies,
Hoffman's greatest gift to the game was to show what was possible with 00-scale figures. The Italians had led the way, but
he opened up a whole new realm.
This meant that the era of the flats as 'king' was over. It also
showed more and more players that the game could be a highly technical and tactical 'sport' and they did not have to be embarrassed
by their activity. More and more stayed in the game into their adult years and this provided a core of people willing to run
the sport themselves.
At the 1990 World Cup the first proposals were made for a player
run federation, taking over from SSG, with SSG's approval.
SSG at this stage was keen for this to happen, because there
were so many tournaments happening right around the world that their marketing department was not able to do both its proper
job and help with administrative information on tournaments. In 1992 SSG decreed that FISA was dead, and a new federation
was born - The Federation of International Subbuteo Table Football, or FISTF.
Still many people were not happy with Subbuteo being in the title,
as it seemed to imply control by the company. As well, an SSG employee, nominally the representative of the English Subbuteo
Association, was also on the board. In 1994, however, the word Subbuteo was removed and the word 'Sport' was included to better
reflect the development of the game.
As well, in 1992 another firm began manufacturing table soccer
figurines for use in the game. These 'Sports' figures did not infringe any Subbuteo copyright and were quickly recognized
by players as first class equipment. The company had approached Willi Hoffman to help design them, and the end result was
that it was like buying a set of Subbuteo figures personally modified by Willi Hoffman!
In 1994 the company brought out a new figure, Toccer, which did
away with the slightly rounded base altogether. FISTF decreed that any figure, which met certain technical criteria, could
be used in the game. So there have been tournaments where flats, 00-scale, Sports and Toccer figures have played against each
other. It is impossible to say which is 'best'. A lot depends on the player and his/her technical level. But it is now recognized
that for beginners, then Toccer figures are great fun, and the Sports figures teach the basic skills.