Falco subbuteo, to all you thickos who don’t know yer birds, is the Latin name for the Hobby. And with that sentence we learn why a table-top football game entered the world with such an obscure name. It makes sense in hindsight.
At its peak of popularity, Subbuteo was more realistic than the real game. To the aficionado there wasn’t a single element of the game you couldn’t buy. And it all came in the distinctive green Subbuteo boxes. In any sports or toy shop, the Subbuteo section was a wonderland in waiting.
My first encounter was at Christmas 1973. Subbuteo came in various box set forms and the one I received had floodlights. Fully functioning floodlights. By 1973 the game had come a long way from its first incarnation: an army blanket, a piece of chalk to mark out the pitch, players and ball.
By the mid-seventies there were enough accessories to host your own World Cup. Fencing, (including a special high fence version if you wanted to recreate Italian crowd trouble), scoreboards, press photographers, television cameras. The list went on and the full range was displayed in the Subbuteo catalogue.
The catalogue was not just a commercial document, it was an encyclopedia of world football kits. I discovered the colours of such obscure teams as Carl Zeiss Jena in East Germany (blue and white hoops), and you could buy them all if the nearest shop to you stocked them. In 1976 when Don Revie took over the England manager’s job and the FA went doolally, the new fancy Admiral England kit became a special edition. I bought it. The goalkeeper wore yellow with black shorts.
Decades before the digital age, Subbuteo knew they had to follow trends and reflect technology. The goalposts changed and astroturf was introduced. My Aunty Marion’s ‘gentleman friend’ Jack gave me the money for an astroturf, but they needed to settle at room temperature before they flattened out. If you didn’t wait long enough you ended up with a playing surface that made Derby’s Baseball Ground look like the centre court at Wimbledon.
The original baize pitches were always better than the astroturfs, and tacked onto a reinforced base they became impeccable venues for the exquisite art of the hardcore Subbuteo expert. If you could get the ball to swerve you were capable of anything. But there was always one nagging problem at every game played at the Harrison Stadion. The scoring.
Unlike the real game in which real human beings go to extraordinary lengths to outwit the opposition, sometimes within the rules, at Subbuteo I couldn’t stop scoring. Every game ended with a result like 18-9. After top level committee meetings harsh refereeing was introduced to bring the scores down to something more authentic. A 0-0 draw was always the Holy Grail of results.
World Cups were held every four years, and in 1979 the tournament was extended so that my mate Paul Reid could take part in the franchise. He’d play evening games of his own and telephone me with the results. When I casually told him one night I didn’t need the half-time scores he threatened to pull out of the tournament. I think West Germany went on to beat Venezuela in the final.
As cash grew thin and the need for accessories increased I did what every industrious boy did and made my own accessories. And that included the stadium. Subbuteo stadium sections were available, but they appeared to be based on QPR’s Loftus Road ground. Not big enough for the kind of open bowls of Eastern Europe I aspired to. It was time to enlist the Co-Op.
Before plastic bags, the weekly shop came home in cardboard boxes behind the checkouts. ‘Grab a box’ was one of the mating calls on a Thursday afternoon in the Co-Op. Once they were home the boxes had their outer layers stripped off to reveal the inner corrugation which looked just like the concrete terracing of the national stadium in Bucharest. With a bit of skilful template cutting the cantilevered stands of Napoli’s Stadio San Paulo could be reproduced.
Every game was played in an empty stadium (blame the hooligans again). Subbuteo crowd figures cost a fortune for a bag of twenty, and my stadium needed about eighty thousand to fill it. But there it was, a complete cathedral to table top football, with its pristine playing surface, advertisements for Bosch and Findus, the anti-hooli fencing redundant in front of the vast empty concrete-cardboard terracing, and the euphoria of a nil-nil draw between Ujpest Dozsa and Den Haag. Both teams sporting hand painted Adidas stripes on sleeves and shorts.
Running parallel to Subbuteo football was Subbuteo rugby, which involved a curious contraption for feeding the ball into the scrum. It was also impossible to play Subbuteo rugby without forward passes, a fundamental foul in the real game, which meant every match became stuck at the half-way line!
Subbuteo cricket taxed the game’s designers, but they eventually came up with a system in which you used a bat on the end of a lever, with fielding players stood next to a dished footplate. If the ball landed on the footplate you were out. If the ball hit the wickets you were out. If you could bowl the damn thing in the first place you were a genius.
Ultimately, Subbuteo football became the magnet, the dominant toy, matched only by Scalextric, Hornby and Lego. It was a toy capable of accommodating the imagination, no matter how far your imagination stretched. It could be played at any age, by anyone and was, like a jigsaw puzzle, something that every visitor to the house would have a go at if they saw it set up.
I don’t know how many players perished under the feet of my Uncle George, but I assume the ones that survived are now running Subbuteo pubs, and the current game has probably kept up with reality by introducing Subbuteo agents to represent Subbuteo players designed to be able to dive in the penalty box. I’m no Luddite, but I doubt the current crop of computer football games, for all their rendered accuracy, can match Subbuteo for its expandability, flexibility and ultimately its bizarre miniaturisation of the beautiful game into a microcosm of childhood drama.