Soccer on a Smaller Scale
Thursday, May 5, 2005
The perfectly manicured soccer fields were situated in neatly aligned rows at Patapsco Middle School. Around them, players from across the globe jockeyed intensely for position, deftly moving the ball with their hands.
Their hands? Yes, the game is Subbuteo, otherwise known as table soccer, and the sport's catch phrase is "Just flick to kick." The fields are scaled down, cloth-covered versions of the real thing -- 48 by 30 inches, proportional to regulation soccer fields -- and on Sunday, 14 of them filled the school's cafeteria for the 2005 International Table Soccer Open.
The event, the largest international Subbuteo tournament held in the United States, drew 36 players, including top-ranked competitors from Wales, England and Austria. Invented in England in the 1940s, Subbuteo has long been popular among schoolchildren in Europe, particularly in soccer-crazed nations. At its peak in the early 1980s, the game numbered nearly 7 million fans in more than 50 countries. In the United States, however, the game has been overshadowed by air hockey, electric football, foosball, and in the past decade, video games.
In Ellicott City, at least, the sport is just getting hot. Paul Eyes, a native of Manchester, England, and a Columbia resident since 1992, unfurled his childhood game set three years ago at Patapsco, where he teaches sixth-grade science.
"As soon as I started to get it out, the kids were crazy for it," he said.
The after-school Subbuteo club Eyes launched in 2003 now boasts 45 members, out of Patapsco's 700 students. Last year, Eyes garnered enough interest among adults to launch the Maryland Subbuteo Club.
It's easy to see why both kids and adults find Subbuteo so captivating. A one-on-one game, each competitor has control of his team -- 11 miniature, hand-painted plastic figures standing on bowl-shaped bases -- for two 15-minute halves. The figures pass, dribble or run when they are flicked by a player's index fingernail, gliding smoothly across the velour surface. Any figure in possession of the ball gets three consecutive flicks before another figure takes possession. For each offensive flick taken, the defender gets a corresponding flick to try to intercept the opponent's pass or block his players.
The offense maintains possession until the ball is missed, kicked out of bounds or into a defending player, or a foul is committed. Ideally, play alternates, but it doesn't have to. Players such as Eyes are known for making short, fluid moves before their opponent can slide a defender into position.
Skilled play necessitates nimble fingers, but "there's a big tactical awareness to the game as well," Eyes said. "It's very similar to chess -- you can know how to move the pieces, but it's the order in which you move them that dictates how well you will do."
Brains trump brawn in Subbuteo. "Physical strength isn't an issue," Eyes said. "And it really doesn't matter how old the person is."
Early on in Sunday's tournament, Eyes, 41, squared off against Nick Trainer, a 14-year-old student at Patapsco who is a member of the school club and the Maryland Subbuteo Club.
"I'm definitely at risk of losing to [Nick]. He'll probably beat me this year," Eyes said before the match. "It'll be a fairly even game -- I will not be nice."