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Subbuteo: Little game with a big flick factor

The sixth goal hurts the most. I’m miles from home, surrounded by strangers, sweating through a too-small football shirt. And I’m getting hammered. My opponent is openly using me as target practice. 

I haven’t had a sniff of the ball for about 10 minutes. My tactics are a mess. My players don’t know whether to fling themselves into the middle of nowhere or just to give up and fall over. Another goal goes in. To be honest, I might have underestimated Subbuteo a little bit.

Subbuteo shouldn’t be popular. It wasn’t cool even when it was invented. The brainchild of a Tunbridge Wells ornithologist in 1946, it was named after the Latin term for a type of falcon. The uncoolest name for the uncoolest game from the world’s uncoolest town. And inside the box? Buttons, cardboard, wire and a stick of chalk with which to draw your pitch. It was a grimly austere hobby for a grimly austere age.

I was never a fan. Subbuteo was too geeky. It took too long to play. The players couldn’t even kick, for crying out loud. Plus, I had an Atari at home. I had River Raid. Why would I want to sit around nudging blank-faced bits of plastic when I could stay at home and blow stuff up?

Enormously popular as it once was — millions played at its peak, with TV stations broadcasting tournaments — I came of age just as the home computer was readying the nails for Subbuteo’s coffin. The game fell into a slow decline and then vanished from shops entirely.

But now Subbuteo is back. Hasbro relaunched the game last year, with the bold promise that it is here to stay. But if it is, it won’t be because it has captured the hearts of a new generation. No, it’ll be down to the diehards.

Over the years, a passionate band of players have staunchly kept the faith. There’s a Subbuteo World Cup. There’s a Subbuteo governing body. 

In 2011, a Subbuteo player won the Maltese equivalent of sports personality of the year. 

This is major-league stuff, and it’s documented in Tom Groves’s new photo book In The Box, a collection of players contorting their faces into gruesome masks of joy and despair at tournaments around the world.

Trying to put it as delicately as possible, I asked Groves if he was surprised at how intense the matches got, given that Subbuteo is, well … 

“A child’s board game?” he offered. “Yeah. The idea was purely to celebrate what a wonderful thing it is. Outsiders would not believe that people could take something like this so seriously. You’ll see a whole range of emotions in these tournaments. Nerves at first. Then they get excited. But they have to control the excitement. You need to save your energy for the final.”

All this talk was intriguing. Did people really get excited about Subbuteo? The same fiddly, tedious Subbuteo from my childhood? Had I been missing out?

The more I thought about this, the more I realised that my childhood was spent walking away from things. Dot-to-dots. Video games. Jigsaw puzzles. Sticker books. All of them left half-finished once the initial well of enthusiasm had run dry. 

Perhaps it was time for me to go back and complete something. Perhaps it was time for me to give Subbuteo another shot.

This should be the part of the story where I buy a beginner’s set and spend a few months figuring out how Subbuteo actually works. But it isn’t. 

It’s the part where I get overexcited and sign myself up for a tournament before I’ve played a single match.

Rules, schmules. Subbuteo, Schmubbuteo. How hard could it be? This tournament was mine. I would waltz in, hand everybody their arses and flounce home. Those idiots wouldn’t know what hit them.

And this is how I came to enter the Lincoln Flickers European Champions League Commemorative Subbuteo Tournament.

My training essentially involved searching YouTube for the word “Subbuteo”. After all, YouTube had taught me how to unblock a toilet, so it would obviously also teach me to become the most sensational white-hot newcomer the world of Subbuteo had ever seen. It was during this period that I saw a documentary called Can You Flick It?, filmed at last year’ Subbuteo World Cup.

Groves wasn’t kidding when he said people took it seriously. The star of the documentary is veteran England player Allan Collins, a man so deliriously patriotic that he’s constantly on the verge of bursting. 

“I’m here for my country,” he shouts. “I will never let my country down. I represent the Three Lions. I represent 76-million people when I go on that pitch for England.” 

As I headed to Lincoln, I realised that if I didn’t give Subbuteo the respect it deserved, I might not leave there alive.

The tournament took place in a quaint squash club function room — a bar, a pool table, enough room for seven full-size Subbuteo pitches and a radio tuned to whatever played the most Electric Light Orchestra. 

The organiser — John, an avuncular, middle-aged man with a Feyenoord kit stretched tight across his stomach — handed me my team in a cardboard box. I noticed that everyone else kept theirs in little wooden chests; one even turned up with a metal suitcase, the sort of thing used to house bombs in 24. I was way out of my league.

A middle-aged squash player wandered past, marvelling at all the grown men polishing their bases. “Ooh, Subbuteo,” he cooed. “I haven’t played that for ages.”

John was keen to get things going. As he had said in an email that morning: “After the debacle that was the pre-Christmas Copa del Santa, we cannot afford any time slippage.”

For my first match, I was thrown in at the deep end. My opponent was Andy, a slight man with a spectacular mullet.

“Are you any good?” I asked.

He screwed up his face. “Some people tell me I am,” he revealed reluctantly.

This was an understatement. I would soon discover that Andy had just missed out on a spot in the World Cup England squad. I noticed that one of his fingernails was much longer than the others. He had grown it for Subbuteo. That’s what this game meant to him.

It was a whitewash. The final score was 7-0. I might have touched the ball once in 20 minutes. Perhaps it was nerves, or the amount that Andy had me scrambling around the table, or my asbestos kit, but by the end of the match I felt utterly drained. I still had three more to play.

The things Andy could do with his players were incredible. He could chip. He could block. He could swerve. He could send defenders into the shooting zone with laser precision. In his hands, Subbuteo wasn’t just a kids’ game. It was chess, and he was Deep Blue. I was embarrassed even to share a table with him.

When I asked the Lincoln Flickers why they fell for the game, they all offered variations on the same story. They had loved Subbuteo as kids, drifted away after discovering girls and booze, and then rediscovered the game with a newfound zeal as adults.

The level of spousal indulgence varied. John’s wife is supportive. Another wife thinks her husband’s mad, while a third seemed a little resentful: “It’s not great for relationships,” he sniffed, before revealing that his girlfriend gets angry if he plays more than once a week.

One of my opponents took part in an international event last year, and was destroyed at the hands of the Maltese. 

“They were all wearing matching tracksuits,” he marvelled. All through the night, the players kept expressing a sort of awed disbelief towards the Maltese. 

“It’s their national sport,” one said. 

“They teach it in schools,” said another.

By this time, the competition was getting fraught. To my left I could see Andy pumping his fist in victory, while on my right someone kept muttering “Fuck!” with growing desperation. I think — and I could be wrong — I actually saw someone cry after their third-round match.

But I had my own battle to worry about. By now I had been beaten three times in a row. I had one last match to redeem myself. My opponent was Ed, a nervy player with a deliberate blink. Before the match, a member took me aside and patted me on the shoulder.

“You can win this,” he whispered. 

Ed, it turned out, had scored t wice in the past 18 months. I could empathise. He needed to win this badly, to restore his own flagging confidence. 

But I couldn’t let him. I couldn’t go home with four losses. As the match started, I knew what I had to do. 

This wasn’t just Subbuteo any more. It was Muhammad Ali versus George Foreman. One of us was going to get his heart broken, and it wasn’t going to be me. 

The ball edged forwards and backwards for what seemed like hours, before, for the first time ever, I found myself within shooting distance. This was it.

Hunching over the table, I lined up my player. I drew in a deep breath.

Time slowed to a crawl. I pulled back my index finger.

And I choked.

The ball shot into the air — too fast, too high and not really even in the right direction. As it bounced across the floor, the final whistle rang out. 0-0. I hadn’t won. But nor had I lost. Victory was mine! I left the club —much later than planned, with John muttering that this was the Copa del Santa all over again — swollen with pride. Next time I played Subbuteo, I told myself, I might even score.

And there probably will be a next time. Subbuteo is so much more than I gave it credit for. It needs the reflex speed of table tennis, the tactical know-how of chess and the flair of a great artist. It can take 20 minutes to play, but a lifetime to master. — © Guardian News & Media 2013

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