In 1921, with the popularity of football growing rapidly throughout Europe, Englishman, Harold Searles Thornton wanted to create a game that replicated football that people could play in their homes.

Inspiration struck with a box of matches. The matches were lying parallel across the top of the box, extending past the edges. This idea was developed into a tabletop game that plays very similar to its real life counterpart. He called it ‘Foosball’.


James: I'm James Parkinson, and this is By Association, a show about football and the connection we all share with the beautiful game.

In 1921, with the popularity of football growing rapidly throughout Europe, Englishman, Harold Searles Thornton wanted to create a game that replicated football that people could play in their homes.

Inspiration struck with a box of matches. The matches were lying parallel across the top of the box, extending past the edges. This idea was developed into a tabletop game that plays very similar to its real life counterpart.

He called it ‘Foosball’ - taken from the German pronunciation of ‘football’.

Robotic voice: Foosball, a tabletop game that is loosely based on Association Football in which players turn rods fixed on top of a playing box and attached to miniature figures of players, in order to flick the ball and strike it toward the goal.

James: Despite Thornton's invention, the exact history is somewhat contentious as similar tabletop games were reported as early as the 1890s. But the earliest known patent belongs to Harold himself, submitted on October 14, 1921 and accepted on November 1st, 1923.


James: Foosball was later patented in the United States in 1927 by Harold’s uncle and US resident, Louis P. Thornton. Louis became fond of the game while visiting his nephew in the UK and took the concept back to North America.

Although originally intended as a fun activity to be played in the home, it was competitive foosball in European bars and cafes that really saw the game rise in popularity around the 1950s.

But it wasn’t until the 60s and 70s that it began to take off in the US. Suddenly, tables could be found in pool halls and pubs throughout the United States and competitions with big prize money were very common.

Whether you call it table football, table soccer or foosball, these days it’s popular all over the world, not just as a pub game, but in many countries a recognised sport. There’s even a world governing body, the International Table Soccer Federation or ITSF, established in France in 2002.

Farid: I’m Farid Lounas and I’m the President of the International Table Soccer Federation.

The idea to create the ITSF was about helping everybody to play together, to be able to speak together. Because before ITSF we had hundreds or thousand of different rules of the game, for example. It was not consistent. So the main idea of ITSF was this: to really help competition players to have something clear about the rules, about the rankings, about the tournaments, about the tour and everything. But we also focus on table soccer as a game, for everybody and everywhere.

James: In addition to the ITSF, there are national and local federations too too, representing over 65 countries. National and regional tournaments are held regularly and yes, there’s also a Table Soccer World Cup.

Farid: Most of the tournaments of the World Tour are open for people, they just have to be a member of their national federation. So there is no qualification, you can go to most of the tournaments. The only one you cannot go is the World Cup and World Championships. You have to qualify through your national championships or be in the top 16 in the world rankings. So this is only competition exclusive for very top players, but most of the competitions are very open and this is something good in table soccer, I think.

James: As I began researching for this story I discovered a whole world of foosball that I never knew existed. Even right here in Australia. And it turns out my home state has one of the stronger communities in the country.

David: In Australia, we’re very small. Foosball Victoria has only been around for three or four years and Foosball Australia not much longer than that. So we’re really trying to expand that base and we have a strong influence of Asian players here as well, and in Asia it’s really grown exponentially in the last couple of years.

James: This is David.

David: My name is David Favretto. I’m the President of Foosball Victoria. And we’re an organisation or non-for-profit organisation that’s responsible for managing really, all the foosball activity in Victoria.

James: If you’re like me, you may have dabbled in some foosball in your childhood, relentlessly spinning the rods in an attempt to score. But when it comes to competition, things are a little more subtle.

David: Your pub style game is really, you throw the ball in and you try to score a goal, it’s pretty fast action, there’s a lot of hand movement. And the number one rule universally is no spinning. Spinning to foosball is almost like using your hands in football, really, it’s a big no no. And what it does is it takes out a lot of the skill of the game, really.

But the ITSF, they’ve implemented a set of rules that are universal and it creates a far more tactical game where it’s a lot more about possession, the games a bit slower.

There is a lot of passing that occurs that surprises a lot of people who come to the game and may have played some pub foosball but the concept of a proper international rules style foosball game involves not so much shooting from anywhere you like, but being able to get the ball from your centre to your forwards. And then creating a position for your forwards to play their shot of preference and then that increases the probability of scoring, mathematically. So it’s a bit of an art in that respect as well.

James: And just like football, different countries and cultures have their own playing styles and traditions. There’s also several types of tables that affect gameplay and your tactical approach.

Farid: The culture is based on which table you are playing on. There is Italian table styles, what we call it, it’s very fast games so reflexes are very important. You have to be able to see the ball very fast. There is some other games like French style for example, it’s a very slow game, so it’s more about the control of the ball and everything.

David: There are some distinct tables. Internationally, in the World Cup there typically five tables allowed and usually representative of a geographical region. The American and Asian and Australian tables typically allow for greater levels of control, similar, the German table. The surfaces allow for more control in terms of, you can grip the ball, you can direct the ball a bit better.

The Italian and French style tables are built in a way that the players feet are a little bit smaller so you can get a little bit less control over them, the balls are more rubbery in texture, less grittier and so that influences the game in certain respects. And a lot of the Spanish tables actually have the legs separated on the players so that completely changes the dynamic of the game as well.

James: Foosball has grown to an amazing level of maturity as a sport in its own right. But what makes it so appealing?

David: It’s pretty accessible. It’s the kind of game that you can just jump in and get playing without really much background. So, four people can easily just jump on or two people can just jump on and play pretty quickly and have a lot of fun pretty quickly. And it also has the capacity to evolve into a very strategic, tactical game so once you do get more involved in it, you have some more, I guess, football-like games where there’s a lot of strategy, a lot possession and so forth. So it caters to a lot of different markets in that respect.

And the other great thing about it is, there’s no advantage if you’re male or female, older, younger. It’s just an instant engagement and you don’t really need that much ability to have fun.

James: Well, foosball skills are certainly something I don’t have much of but I do like having fun, so it was time to check out my local foosball scene to see what it’s all about.


James: David put me in touch with a guy named Loren who runs a weekly foosball club out of a local sports bar, here in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs.

Loren: My name’s Loren Burchett. I run the club, so I guess I’d be the President of the club, so to speak. We do encourage players of basically all skill levels from beginner to pro to come and join because part of the rationale for the club, really, is to expand the sport a bit because I think it’s pretty grassroots here in Australia. Other countries it’s quite popular.

A lot of the players we have that come here they were pretty novice in the beginning but you can see the development as they come week to week.

James: What draws people into the sport?

Loren: I think it’s kind of interesting. A lot of them just love the game itself, so they enjoy playing, they enjoy the challenge. And I think a lot of people - what I’m beginning to notice is it’s actually a bit of a social thing.

I have met people from all over the world through playing foosball. We’ve got a Gentleman joining us tonight that seeked us out through Facebook and Google who’s French. And he had opportunities to either relocate with his employer in Sydney or in Melbourne and with a bit of research he decided, “I want to go to Melbourne because they play Foosball!”.

Paul: Well, that’s not my only reason to go to your lovely country of course, the job is my first reason, and discover your culture. But if I can do two things, it will be, discover your culture, have a job and improve my foosball skills during this working holiday visa.

I’m Paul and I’m from France.

James: So how did you get into foosball first off?

Paul: Well, when I was in High School, like everybody I was playing. And then suddenly you become more than impatient so when you start winning a lot of matches you want to be the best and then you go to clubs and you realise, like you’re really, really bad!

James: So, firstly can you tell me your name, please?

Quy: Quy. Quy Vo. So in between classes a couple of mates and myself would jump in, play some table soccer and that’s how we got exposed to actual foosball. It was probably my fifth subject. Probably spent too much time during Uni days, like, skipping classes to play!

Louis: My name is Louis and I’m originally from Portugal. Well, I’ve been playing since I was a kid, so I’ve been playing for about - give or take, probably about 20 years. It’s a very popular sport back in my country. And I moved out to Australia about 11 years ago and there was no foosball, no such thing as foosball in Australia as far as I knew, so competition level.

I found these guys at the club and we get together every week and have a kick around and sometimes I invite them over to my place and have a kick around my house as well. So yeah, the social part of it is what I enjoy the most.

Quy: Yeah, it’s great! Great finding a bunch of guys that are keen to play foosball. It’s quite rare, to find guys that I would call enthisiasts that enjoy the game and appreciate the game. So yeah, it’s great to come hang out with the boys.

Paul: We’re sharing a passion so it creates a community through foosball.

Quy: So, when people see foosball they think of it as just a bar sport, people spinning rods around, hitting the ball around. When you actually understand the intracies that are involved in foosaball, you kind of appreciate it. So the skill aspect is what I really enjoy and breaking down the techniques, the motions. Just like outdoor soccer. When you - to kick a ball you’ve got to be able to have the fluidity and in foosball it’s exactly the same.

James: Very tactical.

Quy: Yeah, exactly. So, funnily enough I used to play indoor soccer, tore my ACL playing indoor soccer so I had to move over to table soccer.

Louis: But yeah, I grew up with it, football. I used to play it every day. On the weekends I used to have games and in Portugal there’s always games showing on TV and stuff like that. In my situation, one thing linked to the other because it’s all about playing the round ball, if you know what I mean.

So basically, when you’re at the pub in Portugal watching a soccer game or whatever, before and after we just go on the foosball table just play around a bit. But there’s a strong connection between both, yeah definitely.

James: So, in many ways, foosball parallels the world game in that it is global and it kind of brings people together?

Loren: Yeah. You don’t have to be particularly athletic to do it. So I think it’s one of those things that has no barriers and attracts people of all ages and all different genders and all walks of life.

Paul: It gives me a lot of pleasure. So when I’m playing I’m really myself and I have a pleasure through, not only victory, more that fact to have a good game.

Louis: The most rewarding thing is definitely meeting new people, different nationalities…

James: If you can pin it down to one thing, what do you love about foosball? What’s the big appeal for you?

Paul: To score.

James: That’s it?

Paul: Yeah...(laughing).

James: After watching the guys play a few games, it was time for me to jump in and have a go myself.


James: I’ve gotta say, the temptation to spin is sometimes difficult to resist. It's like I have this muscle memory from when I used to play as a kid. But I'll admit that scoring without it is very satisfying. Especially on the pro tables which have a metal plate inside the goal. It's a beautiful sound.


James: It’s easy to see how people get addicted to foosball. The intimacy of being face to face with your opponent and seeing their immediate reactions to the friendly and welcoming atmosphere.

A game inspired by football has taken on many of the values and traits that make football itself so appealing. It promotes community, diversity and it’s open to anyone. Just remember one thing… no spinning.


James: By Association is produced by me, James Parkinson. You can follow the show on Twitter at 3nil podcast, and if you enjoyed this episode, then send me tweet. I’d love to hear from you.

Music featured in this episode comes from Podington Bear and Broke for Free under Creative Commons.

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