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Subbuteo model players with Subbuteo packaging
Subbuteo players
Publisher(s)Peter Adolph
Genre(s)Table top game
Players2 or 4
Setup time2 minutes
Playing time20–30 minutes
Random chanceVery low
Age range8 and up
Skill(s) requiredDexterity, Tactics
Anybody remember the 1st League Table c1947/8/9? I was in this League and finished 2nd - Stan (S.E.P.)

Subbuteo (/sʌˈb(j)ti/ sub-(Y)OO-tee-oh) is a group of table top games simulating team sports such as association football, cricket, both codes of rugby and hockey. The name is most closely associated with the football game, which for many years was marketed as "the replica of Association Football" or Table Soccer.

The "Subbuteo" name derives from the neo-Latin scientific name Falco subbuteo (a bird of prey commonly known as the Eurasian hobby), after a trademark was not granted to its creator Peter Adolph (1916–1994) to call the game "Hobby".[1]


Heritage plaque commemorating Peter Adolph's Subbuteo factory in Tunbridge Wells
Heavy weight players from the 1970s. The one on the left is a customised figurine representing an AS Monaco player. The other two are as originally painted, reference 6 in yellow and ref 65 in white representing the United Kingdom side that played against Wales in 1969
Players in national team colours from the late 1980s. The main figure is in the colours of the reference 457 Argentina team, while the figure in the foreground is in the colours of the reference 410 Brazil team.

Subbuteo was invented by Peter Adolph (1916–1994), who was demobbed from the Royal Air Force after the end of World War II. Searching for a new business opportunity he turned his attention to creating a new table-top football game. He adapted his game from Newfooty, a table football game that had been invented in 1929 by William Lane Keeling of Liverpool. He made numerous improvements, including changing the heavy lead bases under the model players to lighter materials, using for his prototype a button from his mother's coat and a washer.[2]

In August 1946 Peter Adolph filed an outline patent application for the game, which was not finalised until May 1947. The August 1946 edition of The Boy's Own Paper first announced Subbuteo's availability and offered to send details, but sets were not available until March 1947. According to rumours, after the early adverts, orders started to pour in as Adolph set about converting his patent idea into a deliverable product.[2]

The first Subbuteo sets, known as the Assembly Outfits, consisted of goals made of wire 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. The story is that Peter found one of his mother's coat buttons and used Woolworth buttons for the early set bases. 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 were eventually 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 two-dimensional celluloid figures, known to collectors as "flats".

Early production of Subbuteo was centred in Langton Green, near Tunbridge Wells in Kent. Following the advent of the OO scale players the player figures were individually hand painted by local outworkers in their own homes. In its early years, Subbuteo had a fierce rivalry with Newfooty. In the run up to Christmas 1961 Adolph introduced a three-dimensional handpainted plastic figure into the range. After several design modifications, this figure evolved by 1967 into the classic "heavyweight" figure pictured. Newfooty ceased trading in 1961 after a failed television advertising campaign but its demise is thought to be linked to the launch of the moulded Subbuteo players. There were several further evolutions of figure design. In 1978 the "zombie" figure was introduced to facilitate the machine painting of figures. After much negative feedback, the zombie figure was replaced in 1980 by the "lightweight" figure that continued until the 1990s. The game was very popular until it suddenly stopped production. The brand was initially relaunched by Hasbro, who for a short time produced flat photorealistic card-style figures on bases, rather than three dimensional figures.

In 2012 Subbuteo returned to the shops with the new style three dimensional rubber figures, launching Subbuteo into its eighth decade of production. Subbuteo also made other things for the collector, such as stands to create a stadium, cups, crowds, policemen and much more. Subbuteo is currently produced by Hasbro. Subbuteo is a registered trademark of Hasbro Inc.

The game[edit]

Playing Subbuteo is a physical simulation of association football, involving dexterity and skill in flicking the playing figures, which stand on weighted bases, across the tabletop pitch towards the ball.

What makes the game different from most other tabletop sports games are the hundreds of team kits and accessories. While most games feature only two teams (usually "red vs blue" or "white vs black"), Subbuteo has several hundred team designs, almost all representing real teams, with the notable exception of comic book legends Melchester Rovers. While there were many famous teams such as Chelsea, Manchester City, and Real Madrid, these were complemented by many unique sides, such as Boston Minutemen, Landskrona, Antwerp, Hartford Bicentennials, Admira Wacker, and even unpainted models. There are also many additional accessories, such as new balls and goals, special figures for free kicks and throw-ins, stands and crowd, linesmen, ball-boys, streakers and policemen, floodlights, TV cameras and even a mini-Her Majesty the Queen to present the FA Cup.[3]

Rules of Subbuteo[edit]

Subbuteo inside packs.
Subbuteo players.

The rules of Subbuteo table football attempts to correspond as closely as possible with association football. However, the necessary simplifications involved in some ways complicate things further. Players maintain possession as long as the figure they flick makes contact with the ball and the ball does not subsequently hit an opposing figure, although the same figure cannot be used for more than three consecutive flicks. Shots at goal can be taken only once the ball is over the 'shooting line', a line parallel to and equidistant between the goal line and half-way line. The goalkeeper figures are attached to, and manoeuvered with, a rod that fits underneath the back of the goal. The offside law is in effect, but only pertaining to figures that are forward of the opposing team's shooting line (as opposed to the half-way line, as in actual football).

In popular culture[edit]

  • A 1988 mini-series, Playing for Real, told the story of a fictional Subbuteo team called Real Falkirk and starred Patricia Kerrigan as its player-manager.[4]
  • The 1997 British film Fever Pitch features a scene in which Paul (Colin Firth) and Steve (Mark Strong) play and discuss Subbuteo, with one player playing as the (contemporary) 1989 Arsenal F.C. team, and the other playing as a classic Arsenal team from 1971.
  • British band Half Man Half Biscuit wrote a nostalgic tribute to Subbuteo on their ACD album, titled "All I Want For Christmas Is a Dukla Prague Away Kit". It is common for fans of the band to wear old-fashioned Dukla Prague away kits at the group's gigs.[5]

So he sent his doting mother up the stairs with the stepladder,

To get the subbuteo out of the loft, He had all the accessories required for that big-match atmosphere, The crowd and the dugout and the floodlights, too, And you'd always get palmed off with a headless centre-forward, And a goal-keeper with no arms and a face like his, And he'd managed to get hold of a Dukla-Prague Away Kit,

'Cos his uncle owned a sport shop and he'd kept it to one side.

  • Northern Irish band The Undertones referenced Subbuteo, and in particular the tricky skill of flicking your players correctly, in their 1980 hit song "My Perfect Cousin". The sleeve of the single depicts a Subbuteo figure in the colours of the band's local club, Derry City.
  • Massive Attack referenced subbuteo in their 1991 song "Five Man Army":

When I was a child I played subbuteo on My table then I graduate to studio one

  • In the episode "The Big Lock-Out" in the first series of "Black Books" from 2000. After getting a new alarm and security door fitted, Manny fails to listen to the unlock code, as he's distracted by a Subbuteo player in the installer's hair ("there was a little man ... in his hair").
  • In the episode "The Labrador" of the 2011 series of Outnumbered Pete attempts to bond with his son Jake by playing him in a game of Subbuteo.
  • In May 2013, the Cambridge City Council proposed that a 2-metre (6.6-foot) statue in the form of a Subbuteo referee be installed on Parker's Piece to mark the 150th anniversary of the publication of the 1863 Football Association rules and Parker's Piece's association with it.[6] The proposal was subsequently rejected in June 2013.[7]

Flick you in your head like Subbuteo, don't give a f- who you know...

  • In the online slot Subbuteo released by Betdigital in 2018[8]

See also[edit]

  • Tabletop football, the general class of games to which Subbuteo belongs
  • Table football or foosball, an in-table football simulation game, with player figures mounted on rotating rods
  • Table cricket, another tabletop sport simulation for which Subbuteo manufactures game pieces


  1. ^ Hodkinson, Mark (2006-10-16). Table-topping star of the big flick-off: Uncovering the bizarre playboy lifestyle of Subbuteo’s inventor. The Times, 16 October 2006. Retrieved on 2007-08-12 from
  2. ^ a b Martin, Kathy. Famous Brand Names and Their Origins. Pen and Sword. ISBN 9781781590157. Retrieved 1 February 2017.
  3. ^ Cult Football. September 2010.
  4. ^ Playing for Real on IMDb
  6. ^ "'Subbuteo' sculpture for city park". 8 May 2013 – via
  7. ^ "Subbuteo sculpture plan rejected". 7 June 2013 – via
  8. ^ "Subbuteo Slot by Betdigital". 9 July 2018 – via

Further reading[edit]

  • Payne, Richard (1996) Fifty Years Of Flicking Football, Yore Publications. ISBN 1-874427-02-X
  • Adolph, Mark (2006) Growing up with Subbuteo, SportsBooks Limited. ISBN 1-899807-40-3
  • Willetts, Paul (2008) Teenage Flicks Memories Of The Sub-Beautiful Game, Dexter Haven Publishing. ISBN 978-1-903660-02-7

External links[edit]