I’ve never been a big fan of the “beautiful game” it has to be said, but as a kid even I wanted a Subbuteo table football (or flick football as I called it back then) set to play with. There’s something about those little men on the plastic hemispheres that stirs some inner urge in men across the country to try and flick an oversized ball past a goalkeeper on a stick.
Subbuteo was invented by a chap named Peter Adolph. He initially placed adverts in The Boy’s Own back in 1946 for the game, but it wasn’t until the following year that final sets were sent out to eager customers. Initially Adolph wanted to call the game simply “Hobby”, but his application for a trademark was turned down, so instead the game became known as Subbuteo.
Why Subbuteo? In a rather convoluted piece of logic the name comes from the latin name Falco subbuteo, which is a bird of prey more commonly known as the Eurasian Hobby, which links back to Adolph’s original choice of name.
The first sets were quite simple, with wire and paper goal posts and cardboard cut out players attached to weighted buttons. It wasn’t until 1961 that the more recognisable three dimensional plastic men would be introduced, which in turn saw various changes and refinements until we reach the Eighties, when the nicely painted “lightweight” figure was introduced.
One of the big draws of Subbuteo was that along with additional extras such as stadiums, scoreboards and the like, there were also a vast range of the figures available, all painted with the playing kits of various real life teams, which inevitably appealed to football fans immensely.
The Subbuteo company also branched out into other sports, and you could get similarly adapted versions of games such as Cricket and Rugby.
Sadly this attention to detail didn’t translate into commercial success (a real shame) and the Subbuteo company ended up being acquired by Waddington’s, who slowly dropped most of the less popular parts of the range (including the other sports) before they too were swallowed by the toy behemoth that is Hasbro.
Whilst Hasbro kept the brand going for a while, by the early 21st Century they were doing their best to kill the range off, and indeed did at one point, until the media got involved and Hasbro rather grudgingly, it would appear, brought it back. Gone now were the little plastic figures, to be replaced with flat plastic printed images of real life players. A bit of a travesty really…