Football Friends Online – When 90 Mins Is Not EnoughPlastic Propoganda- The History of Subbuteo - Football Friends Online - When 90 Mins Is Not Enough Plastic Propoganda- The History of Subbuteo - Football Friends Online - When 90 Mins Is Not Enough

Plastic Propoganda- The History of Subbuteo

Subbuteo, the mini football table top game phenomenon that for decades was to be on the top of every footie mad boy’s Christmas list around the world. From it’s humble beginnings as a simple British post war hobby game it was originally comprised of nothing but cardboard players on Woolworth buttons and an army blanket as a pitch. Peter Adolph’s invention eventually expanded to become the lovable plastic version we know today and encompass a comprehensive list of accessories. This included an extensive range from teams, box sets and stands to spectators, TV crews and streakers.

At it’s peak in the late 70s and early 80s Subbuteo was virtually a house hold name with many references in the media but especially in popular culture gaining free plugs notably in songs by pop punk group The Undertones and Tranmere Rovers fans and indie band Half Man Half Biscuit. With hundreds of players now participating in official cup tournaments around the globe it wasn’t long before a failed attempt was made to make the game an Olympic sport.

The advent of computer games in the 90s meant Subbuteo was now competing with state of the art 3D graphics and cyber space match day realism. Where once enormous amounts of space were required for a play area and storage now an entire world of realistic football entertainment could be contained in a single cartridge. Viewed then as something of a laughable  ‘ antiquity ‘ by the computer generation, sales of the once dominant soccer game plummeted and predictively the company eventually folded.

But with thousands of obsessive middle age collectors buying up old depleted stocks on Ebay it wasn’t long before the company name was resurrected. Subbuteo had now also spawned an army of younger retro nostalgia buffs bored with simply twiddling a joy stick and intrigued by their Dad’s collection gathering dust in the loft. Today for those who view little plastic men through green baize tinted glasses Subbuteo has achieved global cult status and an alternative to clinical machine generated scenarios. For others fact can be stranger than fiction and the somewhat sickly sweet quintessential English game was not all it seemed to be.

The unofficial history.

Are you sitting comfortably ?  If so I will now take you on a strange journey to the fifth dimension, the middle ground between light and shadow, a dimension of imagination, an area we shall call the Twilight Zone.

I will put forward a conspiracy theory that Dr Joseph Goebbels the chief architect of German Nazi propaganda never committed suicide in 1945 but was secretly smuggled to England to work for Subbuteo. Deep within the toy companies central command bunker he and the supreme creator Mr Adolph ( ? ) set in motion a cunning master plan to promote what was essentially bits of wire, cardboard and cheap plastic. What today would be labelled as subterfuge and spin, Subbuteo through an ingenious advertising campaign created a surreal football themed fantasy world that was every average boys desire. Aimed primarily at young teenage males the graphics and photos portrayed a ‘ Stepford Wives ‘ type society of sinister smiling fathers patiently playing the table top soccer game with their adoring sons. Sensibly in this gender apartheid women and girls were nowhere to be seen and were probably locked away for washing up duties and mating purposes.

From the Subbuteo Twilight Zone we will now travel on my time machine back to 1979 and experience a somewhat harsh reality check. After weeks and weeks of saving up for my first purchase of the basic team edition I eagerly set up the green felt playing surface and teams only to be disappointed that Subbuteo had forgotten to mention on the box that there were a few other essential requirements. Firstly an ironed pitch and bed sheets free of creases placed underneath were needed to ensure the ball did not roll off the table every few seconds. Where space was a premium and my parents flat was bursting at the seams with screaming kids my Mum’s main priority was  putting food on the table instead of a soccer pitch. She would return home from work annoyed at the disruption then madly stomp around the living room like Godzilla crushing all beneath her. What followed was always the guaranteed clip around the ear  for causing such a mess, using her clean bed linen and leaving the iron on.

Other attempts at setting up the game were coincidently usually the same time my football hating dear old Mum decided to do the hoovering. This was by far the biggest threat to my fledgling collection of little plastic men resulting in high numbers of casualties and even more players missing in action. Some hardened veterans bravely battled on usually without limbs or heads but others simply ended their days being sucked up the nozzle of the dreaded hoover into a dark and dusty oblivion. Such was the fate of my poor Subbuteo Kenny Dalglish alter ego. King Kenny because the only similarities he had were a badly painted number seven on his shirt and a little extra plastic moulding around his backside.

Within a matter of weeks my collection began to deplete rapidly. With the purchase of another team or two transfers were common place although due to high loses the players concerned usually retained the kits of their previous clubs.

Dads were generally Subbuteo’s biggest traitors. In most cases they were more than likely to be down the pub than staying at home playing some silly kids game. The 70s was very much a macho age when only boys wore football shirts and fathers thankfully contained their beer bellies in blue denim jackets, a far cry from the doting, caring males seen in promotional ads. I tried to lure my Dad into the world of table soccer by purchasing a Chelsea team but to no avail. After a long day at work, a few hours drinking and an episode of  The Sweeney he would be in no fit state to show-boat his finger dexterity skills by ‘ flicking the kick ‘ ( unless it was the skill in flicking the ash from his cigarette ! ).

The only fathers to resemble the sickly adverts were the sad Dad’s that invested huge amounts into buying for their sons all that was available in the latest Subbuteo catalogue. Often this was a simple ruse to sneakily collect the toy for themselves and many a frustrated boy was forbidden even to open the boxes so as to keep everything in a pristine mint condition.

Although match encounters with friends were the most common it was almost certain that differences of opinion caused the inevitable squabble. Sometimes over interpretation of the rules but more often than not blatant cheating was the reason and unresolved match scores seemed to happen frequently. Complete game satisfaction through total humiliation of your opponent could only be achieved by either playing a complete novice or your 4 year old brother. In extreme circumstances to boost confidence it was even accepted that sisters could serve as stooges for game practice ( as long as they didn’t have the audacity to score ! ).

Another carefully planned omission from the Subbuteo universe was one of the games most deadliest enemies the family cat. At important times of the game feline predators seeing the little plastic ball from a hidden position would unexpectedly pounce onto the pitch and cause maximum damage. Such devastating attacks and interruptions could result in abandoning the match, losing players and worse the pitch slashed to pieces. Unlike Mums dogs are more controllable yet if driven to a fit of canine frenzy their assaults could be even worse and an entire game set could be utterly destroyed.

Probably the most disturbing unwritten policy of Subbuteo command was it’s stubborn refusal to accept black people existed. From the earliest ads I can remember nowhere do I recollect there ever being someone from a different ethnic background promoting the game apart from stereotypical white Caucasians. Back in The Twilight Zone just as there was a noticeable absence of females the same could apply to ethnic minorities. Little kids with blonde basin hair cuts flicking the kick was the norm while in the real world black players were now a major part of domestic and international football. This was reflected in their English team selections and even up to the mid 90s team players were all white ( pinky orange ) with badly painted dark brown blobs for hair. It was like the manufacturer had it’s product purposely trapped in some 1950s time loop and was unable to adapt to the ever changing world of modern soccer.

Racial discrimination applied to blonde players too and the only master race figure produced was Mr Race himself he of the Melchester Rovers fame. The companies argument was simply the added cost of applying another colour to its player range yet it had always strived to imitate the beautiful game down to the last detail in in other areas.

Subbuteo’s greatest deception upon it’s adolescent addicts was it’s promotion of impressive but useless accessories. Having seen my teenage Uncle’s extensive collection at the age of ten and numerous Subbuteo adverts I was mesmerised. An entire football ground, pitch, spectators, etc conveniently shrunk down to a scale that could fit on the kitchen table. School friends boasted of new acquisitions yet I was still embarrassingly unable to expand upon my basic team edition set. Gradually after a combination of saving and begging I purchased a few more teams followed by a score board, spectators and a stand.

Although my set up looked more like Accrington Stanley’s as opposed to Wembley Stadium the natural compulsion was to continue collecting and obtain high levels of respect by like minded friends. However it soon became apparent that after painstakingly setting up my newly acquired bits and pieces that although visually impressive they simply got in the way and were a complete nuisance. Spectators carefully placed in the stand would tumble off their seats at the slightest jolt and a game was impossible to play with so much junk surrounding it.

By far the biggest load of tack I bought was a Subbuteo replica World Cup. This small expensive item amounted to nothing but a crude bit of moulded plastic vaguely in the shape of the prestigious trophy sprayed gold. On closer inspection it is surprising that I purchased such rubbish yet years later these rare obsolete collectables can fetch up to £50 on the market.

As the Subbuteo flood lights gradually dim over the green baize horizon there are a few that will not be looking back all misty eyed and melancholy. On reflection the game was impractical, expensive and overrated even at the height of its popularity. Just as the Reliant Robin remains a firm cult classic and worshipped by it’s loyal owners how many would invest in a newer up to date model ? The simple reality is that no matter how hard it is to accept Subbuteo was nothing but a load of hyped up plastic tosh.

Yet surprisingly I reluctantly struggle to condemn the game to the dustbin of history and retain my laughable worthless small collection in a cardboard box. There are admittedly brief moments I spend on the internet looking at Subbuteo items and for a second dribble at the sight of the stadium edition before the cold logic of adulthood hits me in the face like a splash of water. The reasons are hard to explain, sentimentality ? maybe or peace of mind that a game is always possible no matter how unlikely.

While my remaining collection remains tatty, incomplete and broken strangely my Chelsea team sleeps patiently in it’s box in a pristine and mint condition still waiting for my Dad to return from the pub.


For more Football Blogs and opinion from football fans around the world