BBC Home > BBC News > Magazine

How has Subbuteo survived?

17 September 10 10:27
Subbuteo game

If you thought that Subbuteo went the same way as flares, space hoppers and sherbet spaceships - that is, to the dustbin of history - think again, says Brendan O'Neill.

Like an ageing, slightly bloated former star of the footballing firmament who decides to sign for a Second Division team, Subbuteo seems to be making something of a comeback.

Or at least some people hope that it is.

It may be a super lo-tech game that involves little more than flicking 11 men at an oversized ball on a rolled-out felt pitch, but some believe that Subbuteo can be called off the subs' bench to entertain a whole new generation of gameplayers.

This weekend, the Subbuteo World Masters Tournament will take place in Ashton in Bristol.

Champion finger-flickers from around the world - including Spain, Italy, Belgium, Portugal, Holland and Austria - will compete for a prize fund of £10,000 and for miniature cup glory.

England (represented by the Bedminster-based Subbuteo star Darren Clarke) will be hoping that the little plastic figures can do in Ashton what the real flesh-and-blood guys failed to do in South Africa: play well.

Cardboard players

The tournament is being organised by a 25-year-old Bristolian and former Subbuteo World Cup finalist, Kaspar Bennett, who says he wants to make Subbuteo as popular as it was in the 1970s and 80s.

"Hopefully [this tournament] will make people want to go back to playing the game themselves", he told the Bristol Evening Post.

But can Subbuteo ever really make it back into the Premier League of pastimes?

In an era of snazzy, computerised gaming - when young people can play increasingly life-like footie games on their Xboxes and PlayStations - is there really space for a game that involves fingers, a green felt pitch, little plastic men, and tiny goals?

Subbuteo was invented by Peter Adolph (1916-1994) in the mid-1940s. Its arrival was announced in the August 1946 edition of Boys' Own magazine and it finally went on sale in 1947.

The contents of the game have changed over time. When it first came out, the little men were made from cardboard and were weighted down with buttons and lead washers, and they only came in two strips: red shirts or blue shirts.

The original version of the game didn't even have the famous green-felt pitch - instead you got a piece of chalk and instructions on how to mark out a pitch on an old blanket.

Through the 1960s and 70s, various design modifications were made, the pitch was introduced, and along came the now famous weighted plastic men - who you could even get in your favourite teams' colours, giving rise to the cult of Subbuteo team collecting.

There have been more than 700 different strips.

Royal fan

At its peak, more than 300,000 miniature teams were sold each year. The first Subbuteo World Cup was held in 1987, the same year in which Justin Finch, a 16-year-old Brit who was then ranked fifth in the world at Subbuteo, made the front pages of the papers after insuring his right hand for £160,000. Subbuteo was a bona fide national pastime, if not obsession.

Yet its popularity waned. And in 2000, Hasbro, owners of the Subbuteo brand, announced that production of the game in Britain would cease. A spokesman blamed "the huge number of football-related products" - including computer games - that had "flooded the market".

Today Hasbro, which still licences out the Subbuteo brand to other manufacturers, no longer distributes the toy in the UK, forcing fans to buy products online. Subbuteo recently made a move into the video game market - a virtual version of this old classic table game has been produced for the Nintendo DS.

So has this finger-flicking institution of British childhood had its day?

"Playing table football for real can't be reproduced on the Xbox or PlayStation, and for that reason I think there will always be an interest in Subbuteo", says Pete Whitehead, who runs Subbuteoworld, a website he created in June 2000 to sell Subbuteo stuff to fans across the globe.

It has customers in Korea, China, Russia, Hawaii, Australia, South Africa and "even to someone at Buckingham Palace".

Mr Whitehead first played Subbuteo as a child in the late 1970s and got interested in it again as an adult in the mid-90s. He says the attractive thing about Subbuteo - and what distinguishes it from computer-based football games - is both that it involves thrilling gameplay and it can be an old-style, collector-based hobby.

"The beauty about the game is that it requires skill, dedication and lots of practice. And it's also a great game to collect, with a huge amount of stuff out there spanning over 60 years."

Yet playing football-based videogames, you can choose to be any one of 510 football teams from 27 leagues across 20 countries and you can control, pass, shoot or curl the ball with remarkable lifelikeness. Can Subbuteo really compete with all that?

"I don't think there is a substitute for a real hands-on game", insists Mr Whitehead. "There will always be a place for table football."

James Gordon, who runs the Subbuteo Rugby website, admits video gaming has contributed to the decline of Subbuteo but thinks there is still a place for it. The 22-year-old thinks the decline of Subbuteo over the past 10 to 15 years springs a lack of spare time.

"Lifestyles now are a lot more hectic, hence the popularity of the pick-up-and-play video games. For Subbuteo, you need an opponent, then you need to get it all set up, and then play; it takes time."

For many people it's all about nostalgia, says Pete Whitehead. "I have lost count of the number of people who have visited our website and then called us up to say what great memories it bought back.

"Then we get loads of customers who say they have a son who is always on the PlayStation and they want to get him away from that…"

But not everyone wants to get stuck back into Subbuteo. Faizaan Sackett, a recruitment consultant in London, was an avid player in his teens - but he wouldn't want his three young sons to play it today.

"Time moves on. Technology advances. Why would anyone want to sit around and play Subbuteo on a mat now, especially when you can buy an electronic version for your Nintendo DS?

"Would I want my three sons to play it? No. Kids today do not have the patience. The world moves too fast, and so do they. My boys would reduce a Subbuteo set into a green confetti killing ground in minutes."

Send us your comments using the form below

There was a similar (sort of) version of cricket when I was a teenager. I am now 51. The players stood on a flat base with a hole in it. If the ball rolled into this, the batsman was out. The ball was a small iron ball bearing. The "bowler" was an inclined gutter fixed at one end, and the bat was a flattish metal cylinder hanging from a plastic "gallow". The batting player pulled the bat back with a string, and hit at the ball by letting it drop. Many hours of fun was had with this.

Johan Kotze, Kathu, South Africa

Why do people make it sound like electronic games have only been around in the last decade or so??? Growing up in the 80s I had plenty of computer games to play but still found time for Subbuteo. Long may it live!

Atilla, London

We always had Subbuteo set up on the dining room table. Had to move it to eat Christmas dinner for several consecutive years.

Emma, Wakefield

I loved Subbuteo. It was my hobby of the 70s. I collected the teams, played in leagues and practised when I could. There is nothing better than watching the net actually bulge when you score a goal. Fantastic.

Billy, Belfast

I grew up with Subbuteo, and I still cherish the memories. I hope this game never dies. I still have the first "Grandstand Edition" set from the summer of 1979. It is one of my most treasured possessions. No video game can replace the feeling of playing Subbuteo.

Nicholas, Singapore/Greece

Just seeing the pictures brought back many happy childhood memories of playing Subbuteo. I'm meant to plan a romantic afternoon in Bristol for my wife this weekend. I wonder if she'll fancy going to the Subbuteo final?!

David Williams, Bristol

Subbutteo was a great game, I had several teams and found you could use some teams to double up as others eg Stoke City in red stripes could be Southampton or West Ham, could be Burnley or Aston Villa. You could do the flick movement to increase your scoring skills, and paint up your own teams. I had one in dayglow orange "Pathetico Athletico", one in brown "Dungeon Banks"

John Hall, Liverpool

My brother and I played subbuteo for a few years prior to my joining the RAF in 1955. Even in the Airforce, I met Subbuteo fanatics and indeed, especially in winter, on windswept and snow covered airfields in England, there'd be no flying and we could return to our club room subbuteo, except we'd be playing for money up to 1/- per goal or five bob a team win, I doubt today's youth would have either the inclination or patience to play, and of course, the necessary social intercourse between youth is almost totally lacking today, all they appear to need is a couple of buttons to push and a few grunts.

Terry K Offord, Melbourne

I had a Subbuteo rugby set in the 1970s, and the two problems were finding somewhere to lay out the massive pitch (I used a ping-pong table) and finding someone who wanted to play! But the scrum machine was fascinating, a large plastic ball-shaped device, you dropped the ball in at the top and due to clever moulding inside (yep, I took it apart to find out!) it came out in a random direction. It was very difficult to avoid a knock-on (forward pass), took lots of practice to play a good passing game.

Megan, Cheshire

No, no, no - sherbet spaceships are still alive and kicking too. I buy them regularly!

Mark Wallace, London

Share this

Related BBC sites