Reportage: Subbuteo Investigation
A tongue-in-cheek piece by the BBC in 1988, seeking out the scandal and skulflickery in the Subbuteo underworld...
Some shoehorned links from the narrator, to interviews with young players and a referee who doesn't want to be identified for fear of reprisals. Some quality quotes appear in this clip, like the classic: "Every time a player goes to represent their country, they insure the finger – which is here now…" And there's the immortal: "They believe that if you chop the arm off... you can swerve it round – but that’s illegal, ‘cos you don’t have Brian Robson turning up with one arm – although he did in the World Cup in ’86 of course…”
...and the intense pressure that forces retirement at 16 years of age.... ?
It’s a sport that can be played in table-tops across the country, and it can make a humble finger like, this worth up to £50,000. It’s Subbuteo Table Soccer.
But our investigations have shown that Subbuteo, with 5 million players in more than 50 countries is often not the innocent pastime it claims to be. At this year’s English Junior Championships, at White Hart Lane in London, we witnessed the abuse of several cans of furniture polish and amputation. We spoke to a referee, who asked not to be identified. Trevor Spencer is not his real name.
Referee (identity withheld): “We’ve had many scandals that’ve really shocked us at Subbuteo - Rocked the roots back to ’47. I’ve had players who’ve turned up to tournaments with weighted teams, where they’ve actually doctored the figures to give them a little bit more weight. Done it several ways – they’ve added candle wax; sand; extra washer… We’ve had players kidnapping goalkeepers. In the European championships in Brussels in May, the Italian supporters, at half time, in the England… the Scotland versus Italy match, er… they stole a goalkeeper.”
Amazingly, one of the most recent scandals to blight the game has been officially sanctioned by Subbuteo’s world governing body FISA, and is now an accepted practice at most major tournaments. It involves spraying players bottoms with furniture polish. But, many believe it to be nothing more than blatant solvent abuse.
Referee (identity withheld): “The Italians in 1980 turned up with tins of furniture polish. They’d all gone into their Mum’s …underneath the kitchen sink and came out with Mr Sheen. And the officials at the time didn’t know what was going on. They were polishing the base of the figure to give it an extra bit of glide and control.”
Even top players are not immune to the corruption that riddles the game. Last year’s Junior English Champion, Jason Cook, learned the hard way that cheating doesn’t always pay.
Jason Cook: “I turned up at a tournament, which was run by Waddingtons, with a false nail, and I was not allowed to take part in it. They gave me the advice to go to a manicurist and um… actually see how long it takes to grow a nail, and I’ve done that – as you see I’ve got one now.”
Jason is now committed to restoring the good name of the sport. As a Subbuteo player, he has won 3 England caps, and turned his humble 5 inch appendage into his most valuable asset.
Jason Cook: “Well, Waddingtons - Every time a player goes to represent their country, they insure the finger – which is here now…erm… for £50,000. If I lost my fingernail – and a really good example was the 1986 World Cup, when the Italian champion broke his fingernail, and that cost him the World Cup. So if I’d broken mine that would probably cost me tournaments that I actually played in.”
Jason has now determined to stay on the ‘straight and narrow’, and hopes eventually to represent his country in the 1990 World Cup.
Jason Cook: “If you’re a good player – like you’re born with it really. Like Diego Maradona, as a true footballer – He doesn’t boast about it – ‘cos he knows he’s good…So…”
But the most sickening tactic to rear its ugly head in recent years has outraged even the most ardent spectators. Some viewers might find the following scenes disturbing.
Referee (identity withheld): “We’ve had players trying to improve the swerve of the figures to get round the bends. They believe that if you chop the arm off, or the arms, it’ll shift the weight down to the centre – the centre of gravity moves down towards the base… You can try and swerve it round – but that’s illegal, ‘cos you don’t have Brian Robson turning up with one arm – although he did in the World Cup in ’86 of course…”
We investigated Trevor’s claim by taking a hidden camera to this year’s English Championships. We were shocked to discover that at least 1 player has resorted to amputation.
ADDENDUM : Check the video @3:59, to see an amputated figure being flicked by a finger that looks remarkedly, and somewhat suspiciously, like Jason Cook's 5-inch appendage! ...and again after the goal has been scored @4:03, where a rather familiar pastel yellow sleeve comes into shot! It appears our reformed hero has succumbed to the temptations of Subbuteo stardom and fallen off the ‘straight and narrow’!)
But what are the pressures that drive these young sportsmen to these tactics? David Matthews was runner-up in last season’s National Subbuteo League.
David Matthews: "A lot of them retire at 16, where you suddenly get the pressures of – say you wanna start getting a girlfriend, and you’re going to the disco and whatever, and say some girl you’ve just met turns to you and says can we go out tomorrow, and you say no I’m going off to play Subbuteo – because it’s got that ‘toy image’, which is unfortunate – but the toy company owns the marketing and manufacturing rights of the product – because it’s got that ‘toy image’, it’s difficult for a lot of adolescents to live with.”
These pressures are likely to get even worse, as players push for greater recognition.
Jason Cook: “The players themselves on a senior level are putting so much effort into the game, they want it to become a professional circuit. They want to have tournaments, like the golf players; the squash players – around the world – they want to see it on television."