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A Brief History of Foosball

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Foosball image via Shutterstock

Outside the U.S., the sport where two teams try to kick a ball into the other side's goal without using their hands is known as “football.” However, when it comes to the tabletop version of the game, it seems impossible to reach a consensus. In the UK, the game is “table football.” In France, it’s adorably called “baby foot.” In much of Eastern Europe, it’s “kicker,” after one of the first companies to produce game tables. And in Spain, it’s "futbolín." As usual, Americans have to be different, so we’ve borrowed the German word for “football”, “fußball”, which is pronounced “foosball.” But because the game is played all over the world, there are dozens of regional nicknames for this very popular pastime.

The origins of foosball are a bit murky.

Some sources believe that it started as a parlor game in the 1880s or 1890s, possibly in different parts of Europe simultaneously. Nobody is sure who invented it. Frenchman Lucien Rosengart, an automobile engineer for Citroen, claimed to have come up with the game to keep his grandchildren entertained in the winter. But Alexandre de Fiesterra also said he had the idea while in the hospital recovering from injuries sustained in the Spanish Civil War. The only thing we can say for sure is that Englishman Harold Searles Thornton has the earliest-known patent from 1923, which looks and operates just like the game we know today.

Different Strokes for Different Folks

To the average novice player, a foosball table is a foosball table. However, to a die-hard “fooser,” there are four distinct styles, which necessitate different styles of play.

For example, American style foosball, also known as “Texas foosball,” is generally played on a dense, solid table surface like mahogany, the ball is usually thick plastic, and the foosball men are made of harder plastic, all of which makes for a fast game where power rules. In addition, American tables have three men on the goalie bar as opposed to one goalie in other countries, enabling the player to pull the ball out of the corner without stopping gameplay.

In contrast, French foosball is played on a linoleum surface with a “tacky” feel and a cork ball, making the gameplay much more controlled, with an emphasis on passing the ball and setting up shots, just like real football.

German tables are the softest of the bunch, providing ultimate control of the ball to strategically line up shots on over-sized goals.

Finally, Italian tables are a good mix of styles, well known for using either sandblasted glass to allow for faster gameplay, or plastic laminate to slow things down for precision ball handling.

Professional Foosball Tours America

Foosball was first brought to the United States by Lawrence Patterson, an American military man who was stationed in Germany during the 1960s. While there, he fell in love with table soccer and imported coin-operated machines after he came home. As the popularity grew, Patterson helped found some of the first regional tournaments in the late-1960s. However, it was Missoula, Montana, bar-owner and foosball-enthusiast E. Lee Peppard who made foosball a national phenomenon, when he introduced his own custom brand of table, known as the Tournament Soccer table, and used high-stakes tournaments to promote his product.

His first tournament was held in 1972 with a prize purse of $1,500. By 1975, he founded the Quarter-Million Dollar Professional Foosball Tour, a traveling tournament that hit 32 cities across the country, with prizes ranging anywhere from $1,000 to $20,000. As the tournament crisscrossed the country from January until August, some of the winners traveled along, living off the purses they’d score, in the hopes they might be one of the lucky few to compete in the International Tournament Soccer Championships, a $100,000 tournament held on Labor Day Weekend in Denver.

The Championship tournament topped out at an impressive $1,000,000 in 1978, but shortly after, video games like Pac-Man took a sizable bite out of foosball revenue. Some estimates say that before video games, Tournament Soccer sold upwards of 1,000 tables every month; after video games hit, that number dropped to about 100. Unable to sustain the big money tournaments on such slim sales, Tournament Soccer filed for bankruptcy in 1981.

Smaller manufacturers were able to keep the tournament going until 2003, when the Championships moved to Europe and are now regulated by the International Table Soccer Federation. Although the game isn't as popular as it once was, there are still plenty of high-profile tournaments across the country with thousands of dollars in prize money to be had.

Check out this great slideshow featuring many moments from the heyday of professional foosball:

Foosball Vintage Slide Show from Stephan Dharma on Vimeo.

Learning from the Pros

For most people, playing foosball is a combination of spinning the little men as hard and as often as they can, while hoping that the ball somehow careens into a man in mid-spin and by some miracle, happens to land in the goal. Of course that’s not the case for the pros, who practice for years to control the ball and learn proper passing techniques in order to line up the perfect shot. If you want to become a master of foos fu, check out this helpful tutorial from the UK’s Robert Atha, one of the top-ranked foosball players in the world:

http://youtu.be/hdoH3-7NqX0

Luxury Foosball Tables

If you're in the market for a foosball table, you can pick up a good quality model starting at around $500. But if you have a little money to spare, there are more impressive examples to be found.

Teckell Krystall Series – $7,500 and up

The Teckell Collection from B.Lab features eight different models all made with crystal glass sides and playing surface. Available options include walnut accents, aluminum hardware, or even gold-plated handles, all hand-crafted for precision and beauty. A small, coffee table model starts around $7,500, while the stand-up models start at $10,000 and go up from there. How far? Far enough I couldn't find a price for most models.

Mars Made Custom Foosball Table - $13,000

Mars Made has two custom foosball tables available. The powder-coated steel side panels and solid aluminum body of the Foos I gives you more of an industrial feel, while the retro TV-inspired design of the Foos II features an aluminum case with carbon fiber playing surface.

Audi Foosball Table - ~$16,000

In 2008, Audi Design developed an aluminum foosball table. Originally produced only as a one-off promotional item, customer demand convinced the company to produce 20 of them in 2010 for high-rolling fans.

Barbie Foosball - $25,000

© Rainer Jensen/dpa/Corbis

French designer Chloe Ruchon has done the impossible – combining the machismo of sports with the pretty pretty princess pink of the infamous Barbie doll. This 2009 design, featuring 22 armless Barbie dolls, was sold exclusively at FAO Schwarz, and can count Charlie Sheen as one of the proud owners.

Lux Gold Foosball Table -~$28,000

The Lux Gold uses only the highest-quality materials, like stainless steel and unbreakable glass to create a beautiful yet durable table that will last generations. Choose between 50 different colors for the table's accents, and from 12 different styles and materials for the men, to give your game room a unique centerpiece.

The Opus - $34,500

Design company Eleven Forty has come up with a foosball table that can truly be called your own. Made with etched glass, stainless steel, and a highly polished wood casing, perhaps the most impressive feature are the figures. Eleven Forty can scan in photographs of your friends and family and cast detailed recreations onto the players. If you don't want to get that personal, you can also create a Good vs. Evil table, featuring famous, unlikely players like Jack the Ripper, Gandhi, President Obama, Idi Amin, and more.

The Beautiful Game - ~$68,000

Inspired by modern football stadiums, The Beautiful Game, from 11, a design house in the Netherlands, is the crème de la crème of foosball tables. The table features chromed metal players, lights embedded in the playing field to display the current score and goal areas, and requires 12 weeks to build by hand. The Beautiful Game table will definitely make an impression – even if your foosball skills won't.

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davi_deste via eBay
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Pop Culture
Fumbled: The Story of the United States Football League
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davi_deste via eBay

There were supposed to be 44 players marching to the field when the visiting Los Angeles Express played their final regular season game against the Orlando Renegades in June 1985.

Thirty-six of them showed up. The team couldn’t afford more.

“We didn’t even have money for tape,” Express quarterback Steve Young said in 1986. “Or ice.” The squad was so poor that Young played fullback during the game. They only had one, and he was injured.

Other teams had ridden school buses to practice, driven three hours for “home games,” or shared dressing room space with the local rodeo. In August 1986, the cash-strapped United States Football League called off the coming season. The league itself would soon vaporize entirely after gambling its future on an antitrust lawsuit against the National Football League. The USFL argued the NFL was monopolizing television time; the NFL countered that the USFL—once seen as a promising upstart—was being victimized by its own reckless expansion and the wild spending of team owners like Donald Trump.

They were both right.

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Spring football. That was David Dixon’s pitch. The New Orleans businessman and football advocate—he helped get the Saints in his state—was a fan of college ball and noticed that spring scrimmages at Tulane University led to a little more excitement in the air. With a fiscally responsible salary cap in place and a 12-team roster, he figured his idea could be profitable. Market research agreed: a hired broadcast research firm asserted 76 percent of fans would watch what Dixon had planned.

He had no intention of grappling with the NFL for viewers. That league’s season aired from September through January, leaving a football drought March through July. And in 1982, a players’ strike led to a shortened NFL season, making the idea of an alternative even more appealing to networks. Along with investors for each team region, Dixon got ABC and the recently-formed ESPN signed to broadcast deals worth a combined $35 million over two years.

When the Chicago Blitz faced the Washington Federals on the USFL’s opening day March 6, 1983, over 39,000 fans braved rain at RFK Stadium in Washington to see it. The Federals lost 28-7, foreshadowing their overall performance as one of the league’s worst. Owner Berl Bernhard would later complain the team played like “untrained gerbils.”

Anything more coordinated might have been too expensive. The USFL had instituted a strict $1.8 million salary cap that first year to avoid franchise overspending, but there were allowances made so each team could grab one or two standout rookies. In 1983, the big acquisition was Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker, who opted out of his senior year at Georgia to turn pro. Walker signed with the New Jersey Generals in a three-year, $5 million deal.

Jim Kelly and Steve Young followed. Stan White left the Detroit Lions. Marcus Dupree left college. The rosters were built up from scratch using NFL cast-offs or prospects from nearby colleges, where teams had rights to “territorial” drafts.

To draw a line in the sand, the USFL had advertising play up the differences between the NFL’s product and their own. Their slogan, “When Football Was Fun,” was a swipe at the NFL’s increasingly draconian rules regarding players having any personality. They also advised teams to run a series of marketable halftime attractions. The Denver Gold once offered a money-back guarantee for attendees who weren’t satisfied. During one Houston Gamblers game, boxer George Foreman officiated a wedding. Cars were given away at Tampa Bay Bandits games. The NFL, the upstart argued, stood for the No Fun League.

For a while, it appeared to be working. The Panthers, which had invaded the city occupied by the Detroit Lions, averaged 60,000 fans per game, higher than their NFL counterparts. ABC was pleased with steady ratings. The league was still conservative in their spending.

That would change—many would argue for the worse—with the arrival of Donald Trump.

Despite Walker’s abilities on the field, his New Jersey Generals ended the inaugural 1983 season at 6-12, one of the worst records in the league. The excitement having worn off, owner J. Walter Duncan decided to sell the team to real estate investor Trump for a reported $5-9 million.

A fixture of New York media who was putting the finishing touches on Trump Tower, Trump introduced two extremes to the USFL. His presence gave the league far more press attention than it had ever received, but his bombastic approach to business guaranteed he wouldn’t be satisfied with an informal salary cap. Trump spent and spent some more, recruiting players to improve the Generals. Another Heisman winner, quarterback Doug Flutie, was signed to a five-year, $7 million contract, the largest in pro football at the time. Trump even pursued Lawrence Taylor, then a player for the New York Giants, who signed a contract saying that, after his Giants contract expired, he’d join Trump’s team. The Giants wound up buying out the Taylor/Trump contract for $750,000 and quadrupled Taylor’s salary, and Trump wound up with pages of publicity.

Trump’s approach was effective: the Generals improved to 14-4 in their sophomore season. But it also had a domino effect. In order to compete with the elevated bar of talent, other team owners began spending more, too. In a race to defray costs, the USFL approved six expansion teams that paid a buy-in of $6 million each to the league.

It did little to patch the seams. Teams were so cash-strapped that simple amenities became luxuries. The Michigan Panthers dined on burnt spaghetti and took yellow school buses to training camp; players would race to cash checks knowing the last in line stood a chance of having one bounce. When losses became too great, teams began to merge with one another: The Washington Federals became the Orlando Renegades. By the 1985 season, the USFL was down to 14 teams. And because the ABC contract required the league to have teams in certain top TV markets, ABC started withholding checks.

Trump was unmoved. Since taking over the Generals, he had been petitioning behind the scenes for the other owners to pursue a shift to a fall season, where they would compete with the NFL head on. A few owners countered that fans had already voiced their preference for a spring schedule. Some thought it would be tantamount to league suicide.

Trump continued to push. By the end of the 1984 season, he had swayed opinion enough for the USFL to plan on one final spring block in 1985 before making the move to fall in 1986.

In order to make that transition, they would have to win a massive lawsuit against the NFL.

In the mid-1980s, three major networks meant that three major broadcast contracts would be up for grabs—and the NFL owned all three. To Trump and the USFL, this constituted a monopoly. They filed suit in October 1984. By the time it went to trial in May 1986, the league had shrunk from 18 teams to 14, hadn’t hosted a game since July 1985, kept only threadbare rosters, and was losing what existing television deals it had by migrating to smaller markets (a major part of the NFL’s case was that the real reason for the lawsuit, and the moves to smaller markets, was to make the league an attractive takeover prospect for the NFL). The ruling—which could have forced the NFL to drop one of the three network deals—would effectively become the deciding factor of whether the USFL would continue operations.

They came close. A New York jury deliberated for 31 hours over five days. After the verdict, jurors told press that half believed the NFL was guilty of being a monopoly and were prepared to offer the USFL up to $300 million in damages; the other half thought the USFL had been crippled by its own irresponsible expansion efforts. Neither side would budge.

To avoid a hung jury, it was decided they would find in favor of the USFL but only award damages in the amount of $1. One juror told the Los Angeles Times that she thought it would be an indication for the judge to calculate proper damages.

He didn’t. The USFL was awarded treble damages for $3 in total, an amount that grew slightly with interest after time for appeal. The NFL sent them a payment of $3.76. (Less famously, the NFL was also ordered to pay $5.5 million in legal fees.)

Rudy Shiffer, vice-president of the Memphis Showboats, summed up the USFL's fate shortly after the ruling was handed down. “We’re dead,” he said.

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entertainment
The Time Douglas Adams Met Jim Henson
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On September 13, 1983, Jim Henson and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy author Douglas Adams had dinner for the first time. Henson, who was born on this day in 1936, noted the event in his "Red Book" journal, in characteristic short-form style: "Dinner with Douglas Adams – 1st met." Over the next few years the men discussed how they might work together—they shared interests in technology, entertainment, and education, and ended up collaborating on several projects (including a Labyrinth video game). They also came up with the idea for a "Muppet Institute of Technology" project, a computer literacy TV special that was never produced. Henson historians described the project as follows:

Adams had been working with the Henson team that year on the Muppet Institute of Technology project. Collaborating with Digital Productions (the computer animation people), Chris Cerf, Jon Stone, Joe Bailey, Mark Salzman and Douglas Adams, Jim’s goal was to raise awareness about the potential for personal computer use and dispel fears about their complexity. In a one-hour television special, the familiar Muppets would (according to the pitch material), “spark the public’s interest in computing,” in an entertaining fashion, highlighting all sorts of hardware and software being used in special effects, digital animation, and robotics. Viewers would get a tour of the fictional institute – a series of computer-generated rooms manipulated by the dean, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew, and stumble on various characters taking advantage of computers’ capabilities. Fozzie, for example, would be hard at work in the “Department of Artificial Stupidity,” proving that computers are only as funny as the bears that program them. Hinting at what would come in The Jim Henson Hour, viewers, “…might even see Jim Henson himself using an input device called a ‘Waldo’ to manipulate a digitally-controlled puppet.”

While the show was never produced, the development process gave Jim and Douglas Adams a chance to get to know each other and explore a shared passion. It seems fitting that when production started on the 2005 film of Adams’s classic Hitchhiker’s Guide, Jim Henson’s Creature Shop would create animatronic creatures like the slovenly Vogons, the Babel Fish, and Marvin the robot, perhaps a relative of the robot designed by Michael Frith for the MIT project.

You can read a bit on the project more from Muppet Wiki, largely based on the same article.

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