Football: In pursuit of a long-lasting board game

OLIVIA BLAIR ON the not so trivial search for A table-top winner
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CONSIDERING that the seemingly endless list of merchandise spawned by the vast industry we used to know as football now includes everything from duvet covers to doormats and dairy products (you can even buy Norwich City milk now, for heaven's sake), it is surprising that we have yet to see a game that has stood the test of time.

The exception, of course, is Subbuteo which, like Jimmy Hill, seems to have been around for ever, whether you like it or not. Subbuteo actually made its debut as far back as 1947 when it was on an old Army blanket using a piece of chalk. In those days the Fifa directives were simpler - the rules addressed nothing more than the assembly of the paper nets and wire-framed goals - but Subbuteo has managed to keep abreast of the changes in the game; "Continental style" keepers appeared in 1969, while Subbuteo's first all-seater stadium was included in the 1976 World Cup edition, 14 years ahead of the real thing.

Over the years there have been endless variations on Subbuteo's theme, but frankly, none have been a patch on the original. There was Striker, which involved pressing a player's head down to make him kick, and Bobby Charlton's Table Soccer in which you had to twist knobs at the side of the goalmouth to spin little plastic players around on a hard green indented surface (not dissimilar to the pitch in Monaco).

There was also the quaintly simplistic blow football (you never knew you could have so much fun with a straw and ping-pong ball) and the classic table football, once beloved of youth clubs and pubs, but like Chris Waddle you see them only rarely these days (although in certain parts of Italy they apparently recreate a human version of the game using people hanging on to bars).

There have been endless football card games, too, and more recently a board game called The Manager which was successful, but had a rather short shelf life (unlike its creator, Terry Venables, who has enjoyed a long shelf life without being particularly successful).

Of course, part of the problem with football games is that it's almost impossible to do justice to real action; it's far more fulfilling to throw down a couple of jumpers in the back garden and have a kickabout yourself. PC versions have had a pretty good stab at it, but even they, addictive though they are can't beat the real thing.

However, like any current football spin-off they've still been a huge commercial success, and if projected sales figures are anything to go by, it looks as if much the same will soon apply to the World Cup edition of Trivial Pursuit, the latest offspring of the original version of the board game.

Vinnie Jones, for one, reckons "it's a classy product". Wimbledon's captain was present at the launch along with George Best, although Melinda Messenger, scheduled for top billing, evidently had far less trivial things to do with her time than turn up at Loftus Road. Instead we were treated to the Beverley Sisters (one of whom is the widow of Billy Wright of Wolves and England fame), who admitted that what they knew about football could be written on the back of a postage stamp. No wonder they were all clutching copies of the game.

Not that this version of Trivial Pursuit calls for an extensive football knowledge; this is no board game Question of Sport, not with questions like: What was the name of Bobby Moore's cat? (Pele); What colour are Roberto Baggio's eyes? (green); Which player did Vinnie Jones claim he'd beat by tying his dreadlocks to the corner flag? (Ruud Gullit).

Jones, in fact, is featured in at least six of the questions, which fall into six categories: the world of football, players and personalities, history of the game, road to the Cup, off the pitch and free-kick. He admits that the game is a favourite of the Wimbledon players on away trips, and that "Chris Perry always wins, although Joe [Kinnear] gets all the old questions right".

Strangely, the man who spent 12 months devising the questions has absolutely no interest in football, although he did once go and watch Halifax Town. Brian Highley claims he's tried to "make the game lively and appealing to everyone, not just hardcore football fans", and it certainly treads a nice line between the weighty and the rather banal.

The PR blurb, in fact, describes it as "the ultimate non-anorak football product which will provide a timely and entertaining foil to the serious business of France 98 and unite lovers and loathers of the game in happy contemplation of the idiosyncrasies of the national sport". Thankfully, the questions are not so wordy and, since they do not all focus on the World Cup, the game won't become obsolete as soon as the final whistle blows in the Stade de France on 12 July. Consequently it could well enjoy a longevity in the marketplace of Peter Shilton-like proportions.

Its nearest competitor is bound to be the World Cup version of Monopoly, in which Brazil are Mayfair, while poor old Scotland have drawn the short straw and are the Old Kent Road, which was always downmarket, cheap and distinctly undesirable. Still, as they say in real football, at the end of the day it's only a game.