While games like FIFA and Football Manager undoubtedly provide as near an experience to the game as you’re ever likely to have, short of playing it of course, the austere nature of Subbuteo still appeals to people all over the world.
In some ways, it can be compared to the sort of traditional pub games like skittles and assorted others that involve wooden objects falling over. Subbuteo was, in its heyday, the thinking kids football game, compelling youngsters to gain some sort of coordination between their index finger and their brain. “Flick to kick” was the name of the game.
Everyone wanted a Subbuteo set, but it wasn’t cheap and so it was the sort of special Christmas present that fortunate kids would receive. At my primary school, we had a 1940s Subbuteo set, which comprised of an old blanket (Army, for the use of), some cardboard men on – presumably – bakelite bases and a ball that was as big as a giant gobstopper. It was rolled out on rainy Friday afternoons when the weather prevented us from taking our games lessons. It was kept with a cupboard full of equally old boots, hobnails and all.
Playing on the floor was always hazardous, invariably involving kneeling on the left winger and sending him to the dressing room and reducing the team to 10 men (Subbuteo was still very much 11 v 11, pre-substitution era).
When the game developed beyond its standard blue v red dimensions, team sets became popular and delightfully un-PC – the Brazil team had coffee-faced players to give them that Latino look. I wonder if they do today? Subbuteo produced a wall chart that highlighted the colours of hundreds of teams. I recall learning that Colo Colo, for example, were from Chile and played in white shirts and black shorts. For a long time, I thought Subbuteo had got the spelling of Coca Cola wrong.
In later years, my brothers and I started a league in our street. We mounted the pitch on a piece of plaster board and would stage floodlit games twice a week. On more than one occasion, when a game was swaying away from one player, the board would be upended in dissent. It was an intense competition, full of local derbies!
Like childhood, Subbuteo days soon pass you by. But not if you are one of the many “flickers” that hang onto their days of innocence. There’s a Subbuteo World Cup (holders Spain) and a whole network across Britain. I can’t help feeling that the characters who are still playing the game should be bracketed with train spotters and groundhoppers. Perhaps I am being unkind, because there’s a little of this obsessional behavior in every football fan….