Snake shots and seven-figure prize pots: the story of professional table football 

The Foosball World Championship has managed to survive the highs and lows of the sport's modern history
The Foosball World Championship has managed to survive the highs and lows of the sport's modern history Credit: PULL SHOT PRODUCTIONS / FOOSBALLERS

The players emerge from a modest puff of dry ice in the conference room of a Kentucky hotel. The crowd is no more than a hundred strong, but it sounds like more. They’re all here to establish one thing: the best table football player in the world.

For many of us, our experience of table football (or foosball, a corruption of the German fussball) begins with Chandler and Joey’s apartment in Friends and ends with that bar on Shoreditch High Street. In fact, a century has passed since Harold Searles Thornton, a Tottenham supporter, first patented his concept in 1921 and set in motion the gently oscillating boom-and-bust story that is the evolution of table football.

And where a sport has an even mildly interesting story to tell, a Netflix-style documentary isn’t usually far behind: at last week's Kicking and Screening Soccer Film Festival, Foosballers had its New York premiere. “It started as a conversation in my dining room,” says director Joe Heslinga. “Eventually, we uncovered a piece of sports history that 99 per cent of the world doesn’t know exists.”

After becoming popular in Europe towards the middle of the 20th century, the game was brought home by American troops from the Second World War. By the 1970s, it had grown out of the confines of suburban games rooms and, with the help of promoters, become a phenomenon. $50,000 was on offer at the inaugural World Championships in 1974, Porsches and Corvettes were being offered up as prizes, a tournament was held at Playboy Towers in Chicago, before the tour reached its million-dollar zenith in 1980.

At that point, foosball was the eighth biggest sport in the United States, with tournament purses comfortably matching those of the tennis and golf circuits, and players attracted swarms of groupies as they criss-crossed the country in camper vans. If the cultural impact of “tournament soccer”, as it was then branded, hadn’t already been rubberstamped by convention centres full of teenagers with flared jeans and dollar signs in their eyes, then an attempted Hollywood cash-in surely finished the job. In 1981, the same year in which Pele bicycle-kicked the Nazis into submission in Escape to Victory, foosball had its own movie.

Unfortunately, it turned out that Longshot - whose story arc is so predictable it barely needs summarising - was about as good as you’d expect a film directed by a man called E.W. Swackhamer to be.

Then, almost overnight, the bubble burst. Pac-Man arcade machines turned a whole generation away from the clunky foosball tables: by 1981, sales had tumbled from 5,000 units a month to barely a hundred, tournament attendances went the same way and the prize funds evaporated.

“We floundered”, says Mike Bowers, who had become the first world champion seven years previously. Doug Furry, one of the most prolific doubles champions of the 70s, described the sudden bereft feeling as if “someone opened the back door of a bus, pushed you out and said ‘well, good luck’”. That same year, Furry’s playing partner Jim Wiswell took his own life. For the next decade, a dedicated band of ageing enthusiasts and promoters kept foosball in stasis, but it needed something revolutionary. In stepped Terry Moore.

Moore, the 1992 singles World Champion, pioneered a new shooting technique - generating the twist from above the wrist rather than in the hand - which became known as the Snake Shot. Its violent rotation had the purists scrambling for their rulebooks - spinning the rods is, of course, forbidden - but was adjudged to be within the 360-degree limit. “It sparked new interest in the game for a lot of players,” says Robert Mares, a walking foosball encyclopaedia who was tempted away from the arcade machines in the early 1990s to compete at tournaments.

Mares' Colorado home now has an entire room to house his almost absurd collection of silverware, but the game continues to keep him on his toes. Last month, IFP - who preside over the annual world championships - announced that the controversial “aerial shot” will be permitted on their tour events, allowing players to scoop the ball off the table at their own end before flinging it over both sets of men and into the opponent’s goal at the other. “It’s a terrible idea,” says the otherwise unflappable Mares. And is it not against the spirit of foosball too? “I couldn’t agree more...there’s no need for it.”

Mares steps up his World Championship preparations in his trophy room in Colorado Credit: PULL SHOT PRODUCTIONS / FOOSBALLERS

Heslinga’s film tells the stories of six Pro Tour foosballers as they prepare for the World Championships in Lexington, Kentucky. Among them is veteran Todd Loffredo - billed as “the Michael Jordan of foosball” - who won his first world title as a teenager in 1977 and still trains with the same enthusiasm, his table covered in meticulous tactical pencil markings. “I really loved foosball”, Loffredo recalls of its heyday. “I mean it, I loved the game, like a woman. It’s a little sick, but...”

To watch Loffredo go through his painstaking training drills is to realise that professional foosball is in a different universe to the spinning chaos of a regular beerhall game between enthusiastic, three-pints-deep novices. While the impatient beginner relies on Stoke-era Pulisball tactics, the typical foosball tournament goal (they play first to five points, best of five games) is more Brazil 1970. Throw in the defensive strategies and the inevitable mind games and you end up with something along the lines of chess, football, poker, darts, gunslinging and A-Level geometry all rolled into one.

Elsewhere, there’s Terry Rue, a former breakdancer-turned-anaesthetist who looks alarmingly like Tommy Robinson at first glance (but is thankfully rather more pleasant), describes foosball as “kinda like breathing at this point of my life” and who forms part of the adorable “First Family of Foos”: his wife Keisha and teenage daughter Sullivan are also world doubles title holders.

2014 world champion Ryan Moore, who looks like every single frat house dude of the last decade put together, earns his living growing award-winning cannabis. Alabama police officer Cindy Head, winner of more than 40 world titles in various formats and (“BOOM BABY!”) an infamously aggressive celebrator of goals, reveals she is playing through the pain of a fractured thumb and wrist as she prepares to take on upstarts less than half her age.

The cheerfully casual Mares - perhaps foosball’s answer to snooker's once relentless runner-up Jimmy White - contemplates another go at the big one after six final defeats, as he takes himself into his trophy cave (decorated in tribute to his other passion, glam metal band Kiss). It emerges that he has DVD footage of all his potential opponents. “I put a tremendous amount of thought into the overall process. My strategies will be tailored to the opponent I’m playing...I want to be familiar with their strengths and weaknesses.”

“Leading up to an event, my practice time will generally increase from a couple hours a day to several hours a day with a small recovery period of one or two days right before the event.”

That regime takes its toll. With a month to go before the Worlds, he makes a visit to his chiropractor: the “repetitive microtrauma” of firing foosballs faster than the naked eye can process, while making sure the shot is as disguised and millimetre-perfect as possible, have caused problems in his shoulders, elbows and wrists. “I don’t want to really think about when it will all stop,” he tells me. As for the psychological weight of half a dozen World Championship near-misses, he offers a nice line in sporting diplomacy: “I still love going back every year knowing full well I have a legitimate shot to win...the thrill of the hunt is enough to keep me motivated.”

A reassuringly competitive spirit pervades Heslinga’s journey through the heart of foosball, but there is a remarkable lack of arrogance. Even as Mares talks us through which of his trophies is his proudest possession, there is a sense that each of these foosballers - “some of the nicest people I’ve ever met”, the director confirms - are as intent on keeping the sport alive as they are to keep winning.

1970s star Loffredo (right) takes on the all-conquering Spredeman in Kentucky Credit: PULL SHOT PRODUCTIONS / FOOSBALLERS

And, every two years, any traces of bitterness from the tour are set aside as the preposterously talented American dream team come together for the World Cup. Winners of two of the last three tournaments, Team USA - captained by Mares - will go to Murcia in Spain next month to defend their overall title. The European nations’ best hopes rest on their experience with the 11-man Bonzini and Garlando tables (the US has settled on the 13-man Tornado model since the 1980s), a competitive scenario similar to the grass-vs-clay dynamic in tennis.

Fortunately - seeing as we invented it and everything - there will be a Team GB in action, too, which will include former world number one Rob Atha, Britain’s top-ranked player since the turn of the millennium. “Back then it was mainly a middle aged to older generation competing,” he says. “The UK foos scene has been up and down over the past 20 years, but a tournament in London back in early March attracted nearly 300 players from around the world, the biggest tournament on these shores for many a decade.”

Having charted the game’s various trials and trailblazers, Foosballers culminates tidily with a final match-up between the legendary Loffredo and today’s dominant force: the ambidextrous and virtually unbeatable Tony Spredeman, who even has his own range of merchandise. “Everywhere I go I have a big target on my back” he sighs to camera.

“People swarm around him like he’s a god”,  his mother Margaret proudly reveals. His father Bud used to take him to bars where a young Tony would play until beyond 2am, occasionally using only his left hand. “I didn’t have many friends in high school,” Spredeman explains, occasionally breaking his sullen expression with a charming grin. “I was a foosball player, I wasn’t a football player: I was in my own world. I still am.”

As this refreshingly ego-free glimpse into a competitive sub-culture comes to a close, you cannot help but wonder: is this a sport?

“When people ask me what I do for a living, they laugh”, Spredeman says, before his giant motorhome makes for the horizon. The world’s last remaining professional foosballer hits the road, just like his heroes of the golden era.

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