Their heroes stand less than an inch tall, and they are easily snapped. But for the Subbuteo fans from all over the world who have gathered in a Derbyshire mining village’s community hall, they are no less prized than the digitised versions of Ronaldo and Messi that reign in the world of console gaming.
Even some of the children who might be expected to prefer the Fifa video games series choose to “flick to kick” rather than incessantly tapping their thumbs on consoles as they move the giants of world football on a virtual pitch.
In an era dominated by PlayStation, Nintendo and Xbox, the aficionados of the iconic table football game insist their sport can survive. They compare Subbuteo’s enduring appeal to the way vinyl records have made a comeback in the face of music downloads.
Men mostly in middle-age will handover wads of cash for boxes of teams from their childhoods. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian
At the annual Subbuteo Collectors’ Fair on Sunday in Renishaw, a village south-east of Sheffield, six-year-old Mikey Pogson is marvelling at row upon row of Subbuteo teams as he and his father, Phil, search for that elusive box with Leeds United inside. Wearing the all-white colours of the Leeds team, Mikey says he loves coming to the Subbuteo fair.
“It’s better than Fifa 19 because you can touch the players and look after them when you buy new teams. You can really own them,” he says.
Phil says he grew up in the 70s playing Subbuteo and never lost his passion for the game. He is proud that his son has taken an interest in it too.
“He is allowed on the computer to play Fifa but only for one hour mind you. I insist that he goes out and kicks a ball around either by himself or [with] his mates. That’s the healthy way rather than stuck online all day. And it’s the same with Subbuteo because he can play with friends,” he says.
Daniel Manusco has come all the way from Florence in Italy to buy up teams, goals, pitches and even a rare rugby union Subbuteo set. The 40-year-old AC Milan supporter runs Europe’s only dedicated Subbuteo shop in the Italian city. He has two huge hold-all bags stuffed with Subbuteo products to take back.
Selling Subbuteo is Manusco’s livelihood and he has also converted a cellar beneath his shop into a playing area for fellow fans and customers.
“Subbuteo never died and certainly not in Italy where it remains very popular among people who loved football,” he adds.
One of his most famous compatriots, the World Cup winning Italian goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, told the website Subbuteo World last week that he has more than 500 Subbuteo teams in his collection.
Vintage stadium sections for the committed Subbuteo player, populated with fan figures painted by Steve Johnson. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian
Behind one of the stalls, Welsh-born Paul Lloyd displays some of the rarest teams in his possession. They include East German sides that either no longer exist or have been rebranded after the fall of communism.
Lloyd tapes the box shut containing 11 mini-men from Dynamo Berlin – the team backed by the East German Stasi and its feared boss, Erich Mielke.
“There is a massive market for Eastern European teams but especially and strangely enough East German ones. They are very popular with the Subbuteo collectors and in particular if the teams no longer exists,” says Lloyd.
At the fair, Steve Johnson offers custom-painted figures for collectors who wish to commission a team. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian
Lloyd makes a living from the table football game too. The former soldier gets paid to paint the tiny figures in the colours of whatever team he gets requests for online.
“I’ve been playing this game since I was a kid in the 70s and it has stayed with me. When I was deployed to the Falklands for four months I passed the time organising a Subbuteo league at our base. It never leaves you.”
As men mostly in their 50s and 60s handover wads of cash for boxes of teams, Lloyd points to a pile of T-shirts with an eagle’s head above a football imprinted on them – the Subbuteo logo.
“I’m selling these T-shirts to raise cash so that my friend’s 10-year old daughter can get to the next Subbuteo world cup.”
Another attendee, Mark Skellon, says he rediscovered his passion for Subbuteo 15 years ago, when his mother died in Cheshire.
“I was clearing out Mum’s house and putting almost everything from her home into skips when I came across this old cabinet. I was nearly going to dump it into a skip when I opened and discovered something inside. There were about 100 Subbuteo teams in it that I had collected when I was a boy, still there, unbroken, in fairly good condition. That’s what got me started again.”
Skellon says the most he paid for a team was £600 on eBay.
“I forked out the money for a Norwegian side, Lyn from Oslo because it is very very rare, and no I haven’t sold it on – I kept that team for myself.”
A pick’n’mix of Subbuteo figurines Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian