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Subbuteo - The Facts


01 -
The game is now over 50 years old.
02 - Over 300,000 games are sold every year worldwide.
03 - Around 70,000 games are sold each year in the UK.
04 - 50,000 teams are sold annually in the UK.
05 - Subbuteo is sold in over 50 countries.
06 - It is played by over 5 million people worldwide.
07 - Well over 500 million figures have been made since Subbuteo was launched.
08 - It has been translated into 16 different languages.
09 - The first Subbuteo sets included a piece of chalk to mark a pitch on to an army blanket.
10 - As well as being a hit with many footballers, Subbuteo has a big following in the music world with top bands like Oasis, Primal Scream and the Beastie Boys all big fans.
11 - It is a worldwide sport with more than 30 countries affiliated to the Federation of International Subbuteo Table Football (FISTF).
12 - A limited edition Manchester United Subbuteo set was launched in 1999

 

What is Subbuteo


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, ie. the left winger could only be positioned on the left wing and not used as a centre 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. The another figure had to be used. However, you could flick one figure, flick another, then flick the original. 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 defence, 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 more firm flicks allowed shooting. Each team was composed of 10 field figures and a goalkeeper. The pitch was originally made from a woollen 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 end 'shooting zone'. The pitch was divided into quarters, and the end section was the shooting zone.

 

A Brief History of Subbuteo


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. In Malta it almost became the defacto national sport!

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 tough opposition.

SSG was not too crazy about 'independent' associations and preferred to control all promotion, organisation 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 top flight 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 revolutionised the game.

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 realised that combined with polish, if they added weight to the base they could affect the centre 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, Willy Hofmann, who had been thrashed 7-2 in the semi-final by the eventual winner, Renzo Frignani. Hofmann went back to Switzerland, analysed what the Italians had done, worked on his own figures and launched his own devastating campaign on the world.

Hofmann realised 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 re-setting 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. Hofmann 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 semi-final in a shoot-out, and in 1986 he lost the q-final 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, Hofmann'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.

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 recognised by players as first class equipment. The company had approached Willy Hofmann to help design them, and the end result was that it was like buying a set of Subbuteo figures personally modified by Willy Hofmann!

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 recognised that for beginners, then Toccer figures are great fun, and the Sports figures teach the basic skills.

In 1999 Hasbro announced that they would no longer be making Subbuteo. They felt there was no longer the demand for a game of this type, with the advent of computer games and other more modern pastimes. However they were not ready for the outcry from worldwide supporters and fans of the game. At the beginning of 2000 Hasbro relented and announced that they would be re-starting manufacture of a limited number of sets, games and accessories. These were initially to only be available through the Toys'R'Us chain of stores in the UK.

We can only wait and see whether the demand will encourage Hasbro to expand the range that they are producing, but until then collectors and fans are dependant on buying and trading with fellow collectors - mostly on the internet.

In May 2001 the word was that Hasbro were finally ceasing production of all things Subbuteo. Their reason was quite simply that they were not selling enough sets of the game to warrant continuing to manufacture them.
Almost at once negotiations started between the interested parties to either buy the name "Subbuteo" from Hasbro or to buy a licence to manufacture using the name.

So is this finally the end of the game we know and love, or will there be another reprieve...