How the world is coming together for a Subbuteo Cup tournament during lockdown

” You have given us a carefree day, which is golden in these times.”

Subbuteo is never going to change the world.

At one point it felt like it could. From the 1970 Subbuteo World Cup to the final iteration of the world tournament in 1990, there were times when over seven million players worldwide competed in the world’s biggest table top sport.

From the days of celebrity endorsements from Bill Shankly and Dixie Dean, official tournament box sets and hundreds of thousands of teams produced each year to near extinction in the early 2000s, many people have lived through the rise and fall of Subbuteo.

There remains a thriving grassroots community, however. Mostly men aged 30+ basking in nostalgia on small Facebook groups and meetups in village halls, the enthusiasm and passion for Subbuteo is still there in pockets across the UK.

And when the unprecedented chaos of coronavirus changed the world in early 2020, a small Subbuteo idea coming from a front room in Italy led to something magical.

It may not have changed the world, but it provided a brief respite from the horrific battle being waged in hospitals across the world. 

This is the story of how the league in Italy inspired the Subbuteo Cup 2020.

March 21 in Italy

On Sunday over 40 Subbuteo players joined forces to play an incredible Subbuteo league while remaining locked in their homes, providing hours of entertainment and much-needed distraction to those who needed it.

Tables were set up on floors, tables and any space people had and each player then played two matches each. The ten-team league meant 90 matches were played over a few hours and a league table was formed.

Players shared updates online as scores came in and for one brief afternoon everybody was distracted from reality by the nostalgic joy of a fully functioning Subbuteo league.

Pedante Alighieri:“Last Sunday, all over Italy: 40 crazy players, a 10 team league, 90 matches played each in his own home… on our floors and tables, on pitches, in stadiums…so far and so close..”

“We collected the memberships (40 players) and each played 2-3 games at home.”

The result? Ajax were named the first ever champions while Real Madrid were relegated from the league.

“It was fabulous to follow you yesterday and the experience made me proud to be part of this movement.”

“Unusual and unusually beautiful afternoon.”

” You have given us a carefree day, which is golden in these times.”

Just three days later, the UK government announced the country was going into lockdown as the death toll began to rise.

As editor – for want of a better word – of Subbuteo blog Subbuteo.Online, I had been seeing an unprecedented rise in interest in Subbuteo from outside of the community.

People were raiding lofts and basements, seeking valuations and setting up pitches to entertain children during lockdown. Google search for Subbuteo rose over 20%, while monthly readers to the blog rose 50% in the first week of lockdown as people rediscovered the sheer nostalgic joy of Subbuteo.

I’d been touched by Pedante’s Italian Subbuteo league message and wondered if anybody in the UK was keen to take part in a small cup tournament while we had some time to waste.

In late March I wrote a quick blog post asking people to sign up for a possible Subbuteo Cup and we began to ask for nominations for teams to be entered.

Sign ups came in from England, Scotland and Wales, from Spain and Germany and Italy. And from as far as USA, Canada and Australia.

The players came from all over and they were all ready to take part while in lockdown.

We picked out 64 teams to take part from across the world and then the wonderful Subbuteo Collector, Stuart, did a brilliant cup draw. It was probably the first time that

The first round

We had 32 players ready to flick off. Some played solo – flicking the attacking team until they lost possession before switching, while others played against housemates and family.

We had a father and son, the latter an England Subbuteo youth international, a member of the American Subbuteo Federation, Italian, German, Spanish and Welsh players, hobbyists and competitive Subbuteo players. 

We also had a waiting list of another 25 people who wanted to take part.

What I expected was a fairly dry set of emails and updates with some scores. I would register the score, update a spreadsheet and then write a quick post in a live blog to tell people which teams have progressed.

I vastly underestimated the creativity and passion of the Subbuteo community.

Subbuteo is many things to many people. The players, the posters and the accessories are design icons. 

For some Subbuteo is a nostalgic crutch, taking them back to happy childhoods of beloved memories with people they love. 

For others it’s a link to a team. I’ve heard stories of Norwich fans in Uruguay because of the Subbuteo team. Paulo Di Canio declared he loved Celtic because of the team from his childhood, while Gigi Buffon, a collector with more than 500 teams, has a soft spot for Borussia Monchengladbach because of Subbuteo.

But deep down the oversized balls, the huge range of stadiums, floodlights and accessories and the team sets and kits, are all just a bit silly. Most people who still play, collect and enjoy Subbuteo recognise it’s a table top game originally aimed at children and as such there has always been an undercurrent of the bizarre and ridiculous about Subbuteo.

Why else would people have built massive, game-hindering stadiums? Why else does a post about a Subbuteo pyro get hundreds of thousands of likes on Twitter? Or a stop-motion video get covered by newspapers in the UK?

Subbuteo is a bit silly. The more seriously you take it the more ridiculous it feels. And the Subbuteo Cup 2020 was silly from the beginning.

Kick off

For six hours I sat and blogged the first round results as they came in. From posting team line ups and match day programmes to goal highlights and ‘crowd trouble’, the updates kept on coming.

The player’s Whatsapp Group had over 350 images and videos in the space of two hours. 15,000 people read, liked and commented on the blog in the absence of any other sport.

Union Berlin and Norwich City’s official social media accounts also got involved with some light-hearted banter.

For almost an entire day of lockdown, Subbuteo became the centre of the sporting world for those involved. 

I had not asked for any videos or pictures. I’d just asked for scores. But the creativity of the community fueled itself and players rose to the occasion with a level of humour that was needed in these times.

Like this preview of Tranmere vs Forfar.

Of course the spectre of coronavirus was never far away. A first round player, a first responder, was forced to cancel his match because he was on call.

Players, completely on their own, set their own tributes to the NHS. Across the world, people took a moment before the matches to pay their own quiet tribute to those on the front lines.

Then it was time to kick off. And the Subbuteo stadiums of the world sprung into action.

From a picturesque Florida to professional-style tables from Flick for Kicks. From beautiful stadiums to hastily ironed pitches stretched out on kitchen floors, a Subbuteo event taking place in 32 homes at once kicked off.

Scores came through quickly – but so did that Subbuteo silliness as people flicked the first round fixtures. Some took it seriously and scored some great goals, other messed around and sent in some hilarious updates.

Eventually the scores were in and we had some shocks on our hands. Liverpool and Everton were both out to lower league opposition. Arsenal had been beaten by Wycombe. Faroe Islands side B36 had beaten Palace and it had all got too much for one fan.

The scores were:

Norwich 2-3 Union Berlin
Chelsea 5-3 Blackpool
Sampdoria 1-0 Barcelona
Birmingham 1-2 Athletic Bilbao
Crystal Palace 4-5 B36
Rangers 3-2 Brighton
Aston Villa 1-0 Coventry
Cheltenham Town 1-2 AC Milan
Bristol Rovers 2-1 AFC Wimbledon
Swansea 2-3 Borussia Monchengladbach
Bradford City 3-2 Watford
West Ham United vs Glentoran (7pm)
Guadalajara 2-3 Club Independiente
Kidsgrove Athletic 2-3 Leicester
West Brom p1-1 Liverpool
Leyton Orient 1-0 Everton
QPR 1-3 Luton
Juventus 2-1 Fiorentina
Celtic 1-2 Leeds United
Partick Thistle 2-3 Burnley
Ipswich 0-1 Wolves
Huddersfield 4-3 Dundee United
Arsenal 1-2 Wycombe Wanderers
Nottingham Forest 3-2 Maidestone United
Forfar Athletic 5-5p Tranmere
Wellington Phoenix 2-1 Eastbourne Town
Sheffield Wednesday 2-1 Garstang FC
Bishop Auckland 0-2 Sunderland
Newcastle United p1-1 PAOK
Eintracht Frankfurt 1-2 Racing De Santander
York City 0-1 Parma
Manchester United 0-2 Aberdeen

The second round

So what next? How do you top the mayhem of the first round? The next Saturday 16 players lined up in their living rooms to do it all again.

Then came the videos. The ridiculous, hilarious videos previewing second round games.

More goals. More shocks. More clips of chances, penalties and injuries. At the end of it we had some more scores.

Union Berlin p5-5 Chelsea
Sampdoria 3-5 Athletic Bilbao
B36 2-3 Rangers
Aston Villa 5-4 AC Milan
Bristol Rovers 0-1 Borussia Monchengladbach
Bradford City 0-3 West Ham
Club Independiente 3-1 Leicester
West Brom 2-0 Leyton Orient
Luton 1-2 Juventus
Leeds United 0-3 Burnley
Wolves 3-2 Huddersfield
Wycombe Wanderers 1-0 Nottingham Forest
Tranmere 4-2 Wellington Phoenix
Sheffield Wednesday p0-0 Sunderland
Newcastle United 1-3 Racing De Santander
Parma 0-2 Aberdeen

The third round

And on we went, Saturday after Saturday tables were set up and games were played. The Whatsapp group was thriving and players began to talk about other things. How to paint a team, where to buy some spares.

Players started to play a ‘Plate’ tournament, using teams that had been knocked out. They shared stadiums from around the world, took tips on solo play.

A community was being formed and it was very fun.

Union Berlin 1-3 Athletic Bilbao
Rangers 2-0 Aston Villa
Borussia Monchengladbach 1-2 West Ham
Club Independiente 2-1 West Brom
Juventus 1-5 Burnley
Wolves 0-2 Wycombe Wanderers
Tranmere 1-2 Sheffield Wednesday
Racing De Santander 1-6 Aberdeen

The quarter finals

It soon became about the teams. One of our players, a West Ham fan, shared his superb Upton Park stadium setup.

Another was a Sheffield Wednesday fan, while Rangers and West Ham fans had inundated us on Twitter with support for their teams.

However, it was an English team, Burnley, who were marching on.

Athletic Bilbao 0-2 Rangers
West Ham p4-4 Club Independiente
Burnley 4-0 Wycombe Wanderers
Sheffield Wednesday 3-2 Aberdeen

And here we are. Just three games left as Rangers face West Ham and Burnley play Sheffield Wednesday in the semi finals of the Subbuteo Cup 2020.

We have two players ready. We have two superb stadiums and four clubs left. We’ve had 30,000 people read updates on the tournament and a community of 50 players all helping it run smoothly.

The semi finals kick off at 3pm on 25 April. The final will follow a week later.

And for the new community finding a bit of levity in a global crisis? We have something bigger and better up our sleeves.

It may not change the world, but it does give us all a little distraction from the world right now. What more can we ask for?

Stephen Hurrell
Stephen Hurrell
Stephen is the founder and editor of The Hobby Online and The Hobby by Subbuteo.Online print magazine. He is a giant nerd and specialises in Subbuteo, retro football kits and consumer stories. A journalist and editor of 15 years, he has written about football for some of the UK's biggest publications.

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