History of Subbuteo

Subbuteo is the game we love, as with all great things it has evolved over the years since it's inception. Subbuteo has went through highs and lows, rivalries, challenges and successes.

While we look forward to many more years of Subbuteo playing, this section is dedicated to the history and the development from it's inception through to the modern era today.

The sole aim of both this section and this site, is to inform more people about Subbuteo and hope they come to enjoy it as much as we do.

The Rival
Newfooty was the fore-runner to Subbuteo Table Soccer. It can justify being the original finger flicking table soccer game. It was first produced in 1929 by William (Will) L. Keeling. Newfooty was also a bitter rival to Subbuteo in the 1950s, and advertised itself as "the Original Game".

In the 'Newfooty' game sets came in the 'basic' and 'deluxe' version. In both, the players were made of card and slotted into a slightly curved lead base. The lead bases were plain in the basic sets, and in the "deluxe" versions were painted red and blue. The card figures were a simple attempt to add some 3-D to the coin-pushing style of game. The card figure had an action pose, and this design idea was kept through various figure changes. It is in marked contrast to the card Subbuteo figure. At this stage, the same illustration is on both sides of the player.

The Newfooty basic sets had wire goals with paper nets, but the "deluxe" sets had thick wooden posts and a perforated metal net. The ball was a two-tone design produced in celluloid, and the colours varied. Sets were made throughout the 1930s, and various coloured teams became available, introducing the concept of customers buying more than one set. In 1939 the eruption of the Second World War led toNewfooty and most other toy companies all but cease production as the raw materials became scarce. Post war Newfooty returned to find out a new battle on the horizon, in the fom of Subbuteo.

Subbuteo arrives
Subbuteo was the creation of Englishman (but we'll not hold that against him) Peter Adolph. Its name comes from its creator’s love of falconry. The Eurasian Hobby or Falco subbuteo is a small slim falcon. 

Subbuteo was announced in the August 1946 edition of 'The Boy's Own Paper'. While details of the game were sent out there where no sets available until March 1947. Whilst publicising his new game Peter Adolph lodged an outline patent application for the game which was not finalised until May 1947. The early advertising meant that when Mr Adolph's patent come through he progressed onto filling the amassing orders for his Subbuteo sets.

The first Subbuteo sets were known as 'Assembly Outfits'. They contained wire goals with paper nets, a cellulose acetate ball, cardboard playing figures in two basic kits (red shirts with white shorts, and blue shirts with white shorts) and bases made from buttons weighed down with lead washers. You will have noticed that no pitch was provided, instead, the purchaser was given instructions on how to mark out (with chalk, provided) a playing area on to a blanket (an old army blanket was recommended).

The first sets eventually became available in March 1947, several months after the original advertisement appeared. The first figures were made of flat cardboard cut out of a long strip. Later these card players came in press-out strips before being replaced with the two-dimensional celluloid figures, known to collectors as "flats".

The 1949-1950 edition
In this edition, the players were no longer printed on cardboard due to difficulties in cutting them out. These new figures were made of celluloid plastic (cellulose acetate). The first accessories began to be created, such as a metal device for holding the goal in place, a material to make the ball stick to the net, flags, etc.

The “Table Soccer Players Association” appeared during this period.

In 1953, 3 versions of the game were designed, each with a different retail price. These sets were the:
  • Popular Assembly Set.
  • Combination Set (plastic players).
  • Super Set (pitch, assembled players and accessories all inside a beautiful box).
The variety of accessories continued to grow and a miniature referee’s whistle, game clock, scoreboard, etc. appeared.

During this time, rivals Newfooty did not idly let this go by. Post war rationing continued for a few years after the war had ended, and Newfooty took a little while to get back into production. When it returned there were improvements. The post-war bases now had a coloured balancing disc that sat on top of the lead base. The new celluloid figure had a smaller tab on the bottom that fitted through the plastic and into the lead, but the two parts of the base were really held together by two plastic pins on the underside of the balancing disc. The weight was simply the older base, and this was thin and flexible enough to squeeze the pins firmly in the groove.

Newfooty produced a range of three box sets, although all were housed in the same box.
  • The first set contained: Card figures, balancing discs/lead bases, card goals with metal fronts, one ball, fixture card, chalk, rules sheet.
  • The second set held Celluloid figures, balancing discs/lead bases, card goals with metal fronts, two balls, fixture card, chalk, full handbook.
  • The final set had Celluloid figures, balancing discs/lead bases, deluxe goals (metal or wood construction), two balls, fixture card, chalk, 4 clips to fasten goals to cloth, 4 spring table clips and plastic piping boundary, and full handbook.
Promotional materials made much of the "original" nature of the game. with boxes emblazoned "Why buy a substitute?". In a promotional leaflet mailed out - "As imitation is the highest form of flattery, we feel immensely flattered that Newfooty has been imitated, but would point out that only Newfooty has the complete rules as compiled by the inventor over a period of years and patent self-balancing men of recent design". This could be considered the politest attack on a rival in any brand wars before or since!

In 1951 Will Keeling had a patent for his Newfooty bases but it was too little, too late on that front as Subbuteo had secured patents in 1947.

Despite the gloss, the Newfooty bases were not up to Subbuteo standard. Subbuteo bases were described by Peter Adolph as hemispherical, but of course they were not. The flat bottom was all important. What was better about Subbuteo bases was the curve of the edge, the uniform size, and the lighter weight enabling longer flicks to be attempted with more accuracy. The flat lead bases were showing their age. Newfooty needed a further update to compete.

As supplies becomes more readily available, Newfooty produced the "1953 type" players and bases. These new one-piece bases looked much more like the base of the "flat" Subbuteo figure of the time, but they were smaller in diametre, and the lead component of the base was visible from underneath. The base was still far heavier than the Subbuteo equivalent. Add to this the steep sides and metal bottom, and it was difficult to flick the figure any distance. On the plus side, it was impossible for the players to fall over if assembled correctly, and some pretty impressive spinning could be achieved.

Newfooty tried further improvements and became the first to produce plastic goals. These were "perfectly formed from extruded rod" according to the price list of the time. They had a metal back bar for strength, but still look extremely flimsy. The range of box sets expanded to include a 4th set which included a pitch. The ranges cost 10/11, 14/11, 19/11 and 45/4 respectively (For those who are trying to figure out where the £ sign is you should speak to your elder family members).

Legends Stanley Matthews and Nat Lofthouse were brought in to try and promote the Newfooty brand but the lower quality was having it affect and NewFooty was losing the battle.

In 1961, Subbuteo and Newfooty took very different paths and the table football wars ended. Subbuteo released the classic 00 scale teams just in time for Christmas. These sets made the Subbuteo brand famous throughout the world. By contrast, 1961 was the year in which the original Newfooty Company had to vacate its premises and cease trading.

Now as much as the 00 figures where a huge step forward it is widely belived that Newfooty was in trouble before they were released. Will Keeling's firm succumbed to the usual cash-flow problems that small businesses have. Mr Keeling had stocked up on sets in anticipation of an expensive TV advertising campaign. Previous success with an advert in the local Granada area led to expectations of a good response from a nationwide advert. The oft-told tale is that the TV schedulers changed programmes at short notice, Mr Keeling's advert did not reach the intended audience and the response was poor. On top of this, the company was faced with a large tax bill, and with all their monies tied up in stock, this could not be met. This was farewell farewell Newfooty Co. and even William Keelings phoenix like attempt to return under trading name 'Cretlin Ltd' in 1963 survived less than a year.

This was the era in which Subbuteo could be said to have taken off, since the sets were sold in a very attractive package and could be found in toy shops and sporting goods shops all over the country. So Subbuteo was not the the first table football game but as of 1964 it was now the only table football game.

In August 1970, the “First International Table Football Tournament” took place in the Savoy Hotel in London. The prize was the John Waddington World Cup Trophy.

The countries that participated were Belgium, Ireland, Gibraltar, Holland, Israel, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Switzerland, the USA, Wales, and the champion West Germany.

In 1974, the Munich World Series was played, with Holland being the winner.

Accessories continued to be developed, with rods for changing the goalie, medium-sized balls, specific figures for corner kicks, and a much-anticipated accessory, the grandstand, which was sold with 5 spectators.

In 1976, the figure known as the “Zombie” was born because Subbuteo Sports Games needed a figure that could be assembled and painted by a machine.

The figure was very simple and lacked distinguishing features, and this is the origin of the popular way of referring to the figures as zombies.

Although they were created by machines, hand-painted zombie figures could also be found. Both versions of sets were available. These were the first figures to be exported to Greece.

This figure did not have much success.

In 1981, the figure known as “lightweight” was created; it is a more detailed figure, with bent knees (similar to the “heavyweight” figure) but more thinner and with a lighter design.

They were machine painted, although during the first two years of production they were also hand painted. These figures’ details allowed for logos, crests, and stripes.

This figure was used from 1981 until 1996.

Among the accessories created during this period were crowd barriers and mounted police.

In this period there was a change in Subbuteo’s location: the company moved to Leeds as it no longer needed the labour in Kent.

Waddington through to Hasbro
The period that the Waddington era comprises is from 1983 to 1995.

From 1983 to 1987, Waddington progressively reduced Subbuteo’s product range (by removing its cricket, rugby, and hockey games from the market), and they also reduced the number of teams available (from 298 to 169) and the number of sets (in 1987 there were only two boxes, the Club Edition and the 1986 World Cup Edition). In 1987, Waddington decided to relaunch its new line of Subbuteo products and to target a new audience.

Among the game’s new accessories were a new grandstand, now red and blue, and the grey corner piece, which was complemented in 1991 with the arrival of “Greek pillar” floodlights. With this new launch, Waddington chose to acquire new licences, starting with those of the 1990 World Cup in Italy and the 1994 World Cup in the USA. Two more licences were added in 1995: the Euro 1996 and an edition that included all of the teams from the Premiership.

Hasbro acquired Waddington in the mid 1990s. It began with a key change to the base of the figures. They were now just one piece and one colour, apparently solid and without the metal weight, with a larger bottom and a thinner curved edge. This increased the figure’s stability and made straight movements much easier. Hasbro acquired the 1996 Euro and 1998 World Cup licences.

The official Manchester United Edition was later released with new accessories and also included the club’s crest on the centre circle of the pitch and on the balls. The new “Club” set even came with a surprise: the pitch was made of a new material – not as good as the baize from the 1970s, but better than nylon. It was a shame it only appeared in this set.

In 2000, Hasbro launched new sets that were a relaunch of the sets with the Premier clubs, an updated version of the Manchester United Edition, and a deluxe set that included the return of the grandstand (this time in red and white) and three teams.

Some of the most popular Premiership teams were launched, like Arsenal, Aston Villa, Chelsea, Everton, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United, Newcastle, and Tottenham.

In 2003, Edilio Parodi acquired the rights from Hasbro to sell new Subbuteo products on the Italian market and to produce their own range (the return of the Astropitch, a new playing figure, a redesigned base more suitable to the modern game, etc.). The teams were painted in China.

Hasbro’s licence to Edilio Parodi lasted until 2005.

At the beginning of that year, Hasbro launched Subbuteo again, this time under the name “Photo-Real.” The figures were made of cardboard and had the faces of real footballers from 8 top European clubs.

After this edition, Subbuteo disappeared from shops, except for certain editions, such as the one that was made in England by Marks & Spencer shops in 2009 and was quite successful.

Subbuteo is back
After several years of not being available in shops, a new Subbuteo game reappears with full force in 2012. The packaging follows the classic green colour palette. The logo maintains the brand’s classic colours and lettering, and breathes a more modern air that is adapted to the 21st century. 

The product follows this idea, respecting Subbuteo’s classic identity while adding new features that improve the game considerably. Some of these features are:
  • A high-quality cloth playing field. Subbuteo is a game of precision, and the quality of the playing field is an extremely important point. 
  • New base design that improves stability and makes movement easier.
  • More detailed figures: Teams have players of different races, with long and short hair, blonde/brown/red hair, different-coloured football boots, etc.
  • Nearly unbreakable figures: The new Subbuteo includes this great new feature. Figures are made with a more flexible and durable material that resists breakage.
The new Subbuteo has been received with great excitement by fans all over the world. Latest figures (July 2012) from Hamleys toystore have Subbuteo in the top 5 best sellers and more teams are being to the range over the coming months.

It’s been many years of waiting, but Subbuteo has returned, this time to stay.

For more information about the history of Subbuteo, please visit Peter Upton Tribute site which is full of information and pictures