how to win at Subbuteo

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The Independent Culture
Some people are on the cloth. (Well, Daniel's mum is leaning over the table). They think it's all over, Clavane flicks his finger - it is now.

Or is it? "You can't flick your goalie out like that," says the ref. He turns towards me and, in the manner of an officious Second World War air raid warden about to order a householder to put those lights out, shrieks: "Penalty!"

Penalty? Can you Adam and Eve it? In injury time of the Sainsbury Full Roast Coffee Subbuteo World Cup Final.

I'm not one of those who subscribes to the theory that all referees are optically challenged - pint-sized plonkers of diminished height and dubious parentage. But, for the first time during the afternoon, I notice the man charged with arbitrating our affairs is somewhat lacking in the hair and height departments. He is also wearing a pair of black, 1950s, NHS glasses.

Fighting back Gazza-style tears, I wave my goalie at him and politely suggest he purchase a new pair of spectacles. He responds by waving a red card in my face and throwing the Subbuteo Rule Book at me.

An early bath beckoning, I decide to throw the Book of 101 Footballing Cliches back at him: "I'm sick as a parrot, absolutely gutted. I mean, I've looked up and timed my flick to perfection. You can't make me walk for this, ref, I've given 110 per cent..."

"I'm not sending you off, you fool. Just one of your players."

"Oh, I see. Fair enough."

Red-faced and remorseful, I remove my out-of-form miniature centre-forward and return to the Subbuteo table, taking up position behind the goal. They say you have to be mad to be a goalkeeper, but you must be completely barking to clutch on to a goalkeeper's green, plastic stick.

Still, the penalty is heroically saved. Even more heroically, after a decisive, and legitimate, flick at the other end of the pitch, er, cloth - bit of a bobbler, Brian, but they all count - my 10 tinies go on to win the game.

There is no actual crowd invasion, but Daniel's mum shakes me warmly by the hand.

"Bit of a fluke, wasn't it?" mutters Daniel, a resentful 11-year-old, whose team was smashed 5-0 in the qualifying stages.

Phil, a middle-aged teacher proudly kitted out in his new Coventry City away strip, is still seething about the "Pin of God" incident; one of his players tripped over a stray drawing pin during a first round tie.

"That was a real downer," he sighs. "It was the turning point of the whole tournament. I conceded a goal, lost the game and, well, there was no turning back after that."

Anthony, the tournament organiser, is a bit more generous. "The boy Clavane done great," he insists in perfect Greavesie-speak, as I walk up the hallowed steps to receive the cup.

I have often wondered what exchanges take place on famous occasions such as these. What, for instance, did the Queen say to Our Bobby in 1966, before presenting the England skipper with the World Cup? (HM: "How does one feel?", Our Bobby: "Over the moon, Ma'am").

The conversation on the arts centre podium goes something like this: Him: "That was supposed to be a competition for kids. You're a reporter - you're not meant to win it." Me: "Sorry about that. I'll try to lose next time." Him: "You could at least have gone easy on Daniel. He's 11 and you're a grown man." Me: "By the way, why is it called the Sainsbury Full Roast Coffee Subbuteo World Cup?" Him: "Why is the Pope Catholic?"

On learning of my hack status, Phil nervously sidles up and asks for his real name to be left out of the article; if the kids at school knew, "I'd be marked out as a sad character".

His wife says she doesn't mind being a Subbuteo widow. "Much, much better than the real thing," she enthuses. "It's been great fun watching you all. I must say, I never expected you to win."

"Well," I explain, "it's a funny old game."

The National Challenge Cup, Sunday 14 January, Hotel Metropole, NEC Birmingham (details: 0171-962 8595)