The ongoing World Cup has united legions of soccer fans in bars, public squares, or gathered around an iPad on the park bench — a scene both high-tech and straight out of Norman Rockwell.
A small coterie of fans of a soccer-like game, however, has gone into hiding. This assembly of believers has ignored the omnipresence of The Beautiful Game and taken refuge in basements and rec rooms. They are the Northern California Subbuteo Club. And, like American soccer fans of a generation ago, they are forced to explain that their pastime is really big over in Belgium.
Subbuteo combines elements of marbles, billiards, and soccer: Players flick a minuscule soccer player atop a weighted base into a gumball-sized ball to score goals on a tabletop "field" with 11 tiny footballers per side.
Top subbuteo players, like the athletes depicted on the figurines they flick, can curve the ball around defenders with astounding velocity. And injuries are incurred.
Joe Schmidt, a member of the Norcal club, notes that, at national tournaments, some players wear tiny sweaters on their flicking fingers to keep them warm. He once lacerated his hand in a dishwashing mishap just prior to a local tourney. "It was a terrible injury," he says, "but I played through it anyway."
And, lo, a legend was born. In Belgium, perhaps.