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These Grown Men Really, Really Care a Lot About Subbuteo

Sometimes they care so much they punch each other in the face.

You'd think that there's enough football around for people to wallow in today. From eplsite to Sky Sports News to Full-Kit Wankers, it's essentially inescapable already and has conquered the world like no one religion will ever be able to. But there are some people out there for whom this level of saturation simply isn't enough. Adults who are so enamoured with football that, even in the age of FIFA 14 and Pro Evo, they can't bear to consign their Subbuteo kits to the loft, and who've instead practiced and practiced to the point where they are now semi-professional internationals. At Subbuteo.

When domestic production of the football game halted in the early 90s, a dedicated group of British adults birthed FISTF – the Federation International of Sports Table Football. The group – essentially FIFA in 1:76 scale – introduced international rules and tournaments, and gradually the sport spread across Europe. Italy were the first to invest proper money – they brought in sponsorship, kits, coaches, managers, semi-pro players and even transfer fees. Today, the sport has enough legitimacy that, in 2011, Subbuteo player Massimo Cremons won the equivalent of Malta's Sports Personality of the Year award.

Sadly, presumably because it's a child's board game, Subbuteo has mostly remained on the fringes of sport in places that aren't Malta. A lot of the people involved want that to change – including Tom Groves, who grew up playing Subbuteo with future youth number one, Kasper Bennett (the "Gazza of Subbuteo", according to Tom).

Tom has spent the past three years travelling all over Britain and Europe, photographing Subbuteo championships and tournaments. This year, he compiled his work into the photo book In the Box. I gave Tom a call to find out a little more about the strange, obsessive world that revolves around mini, plastic sportsmen.

VICE: Hey Tom. How did you end up making a book about Subbuteo tournaments?
Tom Groves: My friend Kasper, who's a former world number one, invited me to a tournament he was putting on in Bristol. I went down to take press shots and I was just blown away. It was such a great little scene – a totally unique subculture.

It seems to generally be adults playing, rather than kids. Does it require a lot of strategy?
It does, actually. You have to think three or four moves ahead, because you’ve got to outmanoeuvre your opponent. It’s quite technical and it does require a certain agility, which is pretty ridiculous, as some of the players are the least athletic people you’ll ever see. That’s part of the fun, though: seeing these fat old men playing a child’s game. It’s brilliant.

What kind of people do you get usually?
They’re from every walk of life, but I guess the one thing they all have in common is a deep love for football, and maybe – if you’re being harsh -– they were never good enough to play football. I don’t know if they’d ever admit to that, but I think there must be an underlying acceptance that they’re never going to be pro footballers. They’re fanatical people – they love collecting things. There are some kids who are really crazy and have fun all the time, then there are the really intense older men who travel hundreds of miles to play in tournaments on their weekends.

Is there much of a social scene? Do the players try to emulate the stuff that footballers do off-pitch?
Some do. My friend Kasper, for example – he’s one of the nutters. They drink and have a few late nights over the course of the tournaments. He actually got banned from playing when we were in Sicily for the World Cup. He went out on the piss the night before and didn’t wake up in time for the match. That pissed off a lot of people, so the English Subbuteo Board banned him for six months. The top people – the people who come first and second every year – they’re very focused and want to be the best, so they don’t get involved as much in the social scene.

I notice you focus on the goal celebrations a lot in your photos.
That was the thing that struck me when I first started going to tournaments – the passion and the celebrations. The passion that these people have for this game is insane. It’s just flicking a ball into a goal, but they go mental, dropping to their knees, cheering. There were people in tears at points.

I noticed they all have their own kits as well.
Yeah, they have their own Subbuteo team shirts. They go to great lengths with this kind of thing. A few teams are really well funded and they’ll have a team tracksuit with a sponsor across the middle, and they all have matching rucksacks.

I had no idea it was so formal. 
Yeah, there are lots of teams across Europe you can transfer between, and there are fees involved at the top end. It can go into thousands of pounds. They’ll pay for all your travel, equipment, kit and hotels. There are contracts and managers and coaches. In the English setup there will be a coach for under-12s, under-15s, etc. Then there’ll be captains who help select the players who go into a tournament. FISTF are like the FIFA of Subbuteo; their board of directors are there to encourage sponsorship or fair play or promoting tournaments. It’s really on a whole new level from, say, ten years ago.

Are there any bitter rivalries?
The main team rivalry would be between Italy and Spain. Both countries really love the game and are usually number one or two in the world. Between individual players, there are people who cheat and people who are maybe a little too aggressive. If they score a goal, they’ll get really close and shout in their opponent's face to kind of demoralise them. I’ve heard stories from back in the day when some guy just completely lamped someone in the face, but those guys got ostracised from the community. There are fair play rules now, but yeah, it does get heated.

Are there any hooligan firms?
No, not yet. There are travelling fans, though – people who won’t really play or anything, but come to the tournaments to watch, drink and have a good time.

Will it ever get to the stage where there are professional Subbuteo players?
The top players do get paid for it, but they have jobs as well. But yes, you’d like to think so. I mean, if there are professional poker and computer game players, then yeah, why not?

Thanks, Tom.

Click through to see more of Tom's photos.

Follow Matthew (@MatthewFrancey) and Tom (@t_gPhoto) on Twitter.

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