Subbuteo: Wayne Rooney, as you've never seen him before

The new version of Subbuteo brings the faces of the world's most famous players to the world of flick and kick football. Terry Kirby investigates a game in which there is no swearing, no diving, and no fisticuffs in the tunnel
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The long-predicted European football super-league, in which some of the world's best players compete against each other in showcase scenarios, has finally arrived. The only problem is that, for the present, it is in table-top form.

The long-predicted European football super-league, in which some of the world's best players compete against each other in showcase scenarios, has finally arrived. The only problem is that, for the present, it is in table-top form.

Subbuteo is relaunching with a radical new version, which aims to capitalise on the success of the Champions' League and the dominance of a small handful of big clubs and high-profile players.

The tradition of having anonymous players in your favourite team, however lowly, to flick the plastic ball around has been abandoned in favour of new figures, with pictures of star players such as Ronaldinho and Wayne Rooney superimposed upon them, designed to appeal to a modern generation of schoolboys.

Subbuteo was launched in 1947 and is now part of the United States games giant Hasbro, which is determined to revive a game that has been facing a long-term demise, languishing among middle-aged male followers attempting to recreate the days of meat pies and packed terraces while their sons play football games on PlayStations in their bedrooms.

But, the new version, which is officially launched at the end of the month, is already proving controversial among die-hard Subbuteo players. Pete Whitehead, a former Olympic athlete who runs Subbuteoworld, a website dedicated to collectors of Subbuteo games and ephemera, said: "It's pretty poor really and we are not very impressed.

"I don't think they have designed it very well. I'd hesitate to call it a game. The old Subbuteo was bought as a game to be played by your team and you would collect more teams or your favourite team in a new strip. The players were never individually identified.

"This new version is designed to appeal to the playground collector, who can swap the named players with his mates to build up a team, which you can, if you want, play table football with. I don't think many of our customers will be interested.'' But he added: "It could work well as a collectable item. The players come on plastic cards and look excellent, so maybe the kids will like them. But if they only stick to a handful of teams, they might get bored quickly. I think it's on a knife edge."

The new version, while actually being closer in design to the original 1947 style, is unlikely to find favour with the hundreds who play competitively every week in Subbuteo clubs around the country. Chris Wrigley, chairman of the English Sports Table Football Association, said: "I don't think this is a very playable version and I don't think many of our members will use it. Most of them have custom-designed bases anyway. It's rather like choosing a football boot - you have to find the one you are best suited to."

Initially, as well as pitch, scoreboard and goals, the new game will contain 24 players, with a random selection of three players each from eight teams drawn from a list of the top European clubs, including Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester United, AC Milan, Juventus and Barcelona in their club strips. In a departure from the moulded players of recent years, the new generation are flat and come in a credit-card sized holder; they slot into the bases, which are used to flick the ball in the time-honoured fashion.

According to Subbuteo, this will allow players to assemble their very own "dream teams" - although the players of course retain their club strips. Additional packs of 12 players can be purchased so that, in theory, collectors can assemble complete versions of their favourite European teams. More teams and players will be added in the future.

Although Subbuteo claims it is "bouncing back onto the scene", in reality it is hoping that the new game will tap into both the perennial playground fashion among schoolboys for swapping cards and other collectable items and the dominance of the big European clubs, which have led to well-documented problems among lower division sides and the bottom half of the Premiership.

If it fails, the final whistle may lie ahead for a game which, according to Daniel Tatarsky, actor, Subbuteo enthusiast and author of Flick to Kick - The Illustrated History of Subbuteo, published by Orion last September, has a global brand recognition comparable with CocaCola or McDonalds.

He said: "It's just one of those names everybody from a certain era remembers. When I was going around provincial radio stations promoting my book it was always the middle-aged men who started reminiscing about it.'' Mr Tatarsky is a classic example: "I played Subbuteo as a kid, stopped doing it in my twenties but always kept a love for the game. It's actually only since I did the book that I've got back into it. And I'm now 40. I'm off to play in my local club."

The problem has been the age factor: after Hasbro bought the company from John Waddington in the mid-1990s, sales declined from about 150,000 a year and by 2000 the company was only persuaded from stopping production altogether by pressure from fans. But sales failed to rally, reaching just 3,000 in 2002 and 500 in 2003, when production was stopped. A limited number has since been made under licence in Italy while the current relaunch was being hatched.

Although many might instinctively feel Subbuteo belongs to the 1930s and the parlour games of an earlier, simpler era, it is actually a post-Second World War invention, created in 1947 by Peter Adolph, a civil servant and keen ornithologist. He wanted to call it the Hobby Hawk, after his favourite bird, but could not get the name registered; he used the Latin name for the bird, Falco subbuteo, instead.

The first sets comprised goals made from wire and paper with, flat cardboard playing figures in basic kits - one red, one white. The bases consisted of a button weighed down with lead washers. And there was no pitch - just a piece of chalk and instructions on how to draw a pitch on a cloth. Celluloid figures were introduced in 1950 and moulded, three-dimensional figures in 1961, removable from the base.

Over the years hundreds of different teams from Britain were produced and, at its height in the 1960s, fuelled by the 1966 World Cup victory and the success of the England team, the game was sold in 55 countries. As football changed, so did Subbuteo, introducing black players for the first time in the 1970s and, as football became the global game, teams from all over Europe and the world.

Cricket and rugby versions were also produced, but were much less popular. The most common score in Subbuteo cricket was six byes, due to the vagaries of the bowling contraption's line and length. Snooker Express was so fiendishly tricky that a break of one was an achievement, while Subbuteo rugby had few flowing moves and failed to set the pulses racing..

Fans of the football version are said to include Sven Goran Eriksson, who, when manager of Lazio, was seen with a set balanced on his bed for working out match tactics. Alan McGee, the manager of Oasis, Michael Howard, the Conservative leader, and Fergal Sharkey, former singer with the Undertones have also been enthusiasts.

Although electronic games and the internet have been blamed for children finding alternative means of entertainment, ironically Subbuteo thrives online, with dozens of websites dedicated to players and collectors.

Competitive players stage their own tournaments, with an annual World Cup that attracts serious players from around the world. Matches last for 30 minutes, 15 minutes each way and include provision for extra time and penalty shoot-outs.

Mr Wrigley said: "We reckon there are around 500 to 600 regular competitive players in Britain, who are members of our body and associated groups. But of course there are many more who are not members but play regularly among friends.

"It's like normal football - sometimes you play well and lose, sometimes you are rubbish and win. We do have refs, of course, but not many red cards."

There is an arcane divide among players over the use of the base and some traditionalists play according to strict Subbuteo rules, rather than those agreed by Mr Wrigley's body. Earlier Subbuteo versions had a base which allowed players to curl the ball and swerve around opponents; later versions produce longer, straighter kicks. "It's like the difference between rugby league and rugby union, but to the outsider, its all the same game. Without Subbuteo, there would be no table football," said Mr Wrigley.

He claims young people are coming back to the game. "There are a few more young people getting into it now, largely because men bring their sons. A lot like to encourage their children to play, because it get them away from the computer games."

Many collectors do not play competitively, finding their satisfaction in buying obscure teams, or overseas versions. Keegan Harrison, a toy specialist at Bonhams, the auction house, said Subbuteo sets were beginning to attract high prices at auction. "They are not quite there yet, but they are increasingly appearing and prices are getting better and better. Whenever we put one in a catalogue we get a lot of calls - it's an adult nostalgia thing."

Some think perhaps that is where Subbuteo should stay - as a memory, out of place in an era when referees get death threats and young players are paid £3,000 a week while in prison for drink-driving. The MP Tony Banks, a keen football fan, is one: "Subbuteo is from an earlier, more innocent age of football. Now, what with all the PlayStations and the like, I don't see why they need to revive nostalgic activity."

Perhaps, to make it truly contemporary, he said, the new version should include players who dive and groups that surround the referee in an intimidating horde.

Subbuteo: the statistics (and the famous fans)

* The creator of Subbuteo, Peter Adolph, originally wanted to call the game The Hobby but could not get this registered. So instead he chose the Latin for the bird of that name - Falco subbuteo - and Subbuteo stuck.

* Subbuteo is sold in more than 50 countries.

* The writer Will Self admits his interest in Subbuteo was as much artistic as sporting. He says: "I just used to snap off the legs and produce Chapman Brothers-style tableaux of horror."

* One of the rarest full sets is a Munich World Series Subbuteo Edition.

* The game has been translated into 16 languages.

* Hasbro bought the rights from Waddingtons in 1994 for a rumoured £50m.

* 500 million (and growing): the estimated number of figures made since Subbuteo began.

* The world record for playing Subbuteo is 62 hours and seven minutes. It was set in December 1986 by Paul Chambers and Tim Peters.

* There are more than 25 different goal types produced...

* ...and more than 30 different types of balls.

* A policeman and a set containing streakers were created for the game and proved particularly popular in the 1980s.

* The rarest item is a Beatles Subbuteo, which is a non-football item. It was created after a chance meeting with the band's manager, Brian Epstein.

* The BBC sports presenter Adrian Chiles had the World Cup Edition of 1974 and says he can "still see the box, still feel the box. There was Brazil, I wanted West Bromwich." Typically, he says: "I used to play/fight my brother at Subbuteo. He won that as he did most competitions between us, girls, athletics. But more importantly Subbuteo. Mr Macey, the gym teacher at our school, a fearsome Sunderland fan (this was the West Midlands, remember) with a big beard, organised a Subbuteo competition for us all. I never made the final I'm afraid to say, it was won by Winston Bailey. The competition was a huge clash of cultures, styles. The course of the heats was interrupted by a sudden and painful shattering sound. Mark Baylis had knocked over Mr Macey's cherished Sunderland Cup Winners mug. "I'll never get another one of those, kid. We'll not win again."

* Subbuteo featured in the records of at least two cult bands from the 1980s. The Undertones' "My Perfect Cousin" had the lines: "Even at the age of ten /Smart boy Kevin was a smart boy then / He always beat me at Subbuteo / Cos he flicked the kick / And I didn't know." The other was Half Man Half Biscuit's "All I Want for Christmas is a Dukla Prague Away Kit", which ended: "And your travelling army of synthetic supporters / Would be taken away from you and thrown in the bin."

* The fractious relations between brothers Liam and Noel Gallagher of Oasis erupted over a game of Subbuteo. They were playing at a Monmouth recording studio when they fell out, venting their anger on, and ruining, the football figures.

* More than 700 different football strips have appeared on the figures.

* The game is said to have inspired some of football's most famous names, including Sven Goran Eriksson and Denis Law.

* At its peak in the early 1980s the game was played by almost seven million people.

* Peter Adolph was a Queens Park Rangers fan. When he died in 1994, his coffin was adorned with a 3ft Subbuteo figure in a QPR strip.