SINGAPORE – It only takes a second to score a goal, or so goes one of the cliches in football.
But there is probably no better way to describe table football, where the Beautiful Game is replicated on game boards with free-standing figurines and a plastic ball.
While the figurines can only be moved by flicks of the finger, the speed at which goals are scored can surprise those who are not familiar with table football, according to Tan Kok Wee, president of the Table Football Association of Singapore (TFAS).
“If you’re accurate in flicking, the game can be very fast,” he told TODAY in a recent interview during one of TFAS’ training sessions.
“If you are a good player, you can score within two to three seconds from a goal-kick.”
Tan would know, having been crowned champion in the individual open category – which featured highly-ranked players from Europe – at the Asian Cup in Tokyo last month.
The 46-year-old was also part of the teams that took home both the Asian Nations and club team trophies, while the individual plate and Under-12 titles were won by Singaporeans Vikas Chandiramani and Tan Yi De respectively.
Those achievements serve as affirmation for TFAS’ efforts in reviving table football locally, which enjoyed its heyday in the 1980s and early 90s before dying off – an age that Tan remembers well.
“It started to disappear when Hasbro bought over Waddingtons,” he said of the card and board games publisher that manufactured Subbuteo, a group of table top games simulating team sports that is most associated with football.
“Hasbro took it off the shelves in 2002 and we didn’t get it locally. Electronic consoles like the PlayStation and X-Box also started to rise in popularity, so board games went on the decline.”
But there remained some players in the local scene and Tan reconnected with some of them in 2007, having been inspired to search for them after finding his old Subbuteo box while clearing out his store-room one day.
That led to the group of five making an effort to search out more former players by running small tournaments at public areas like the Tampines Sports Complex.
The advent of social media proved to be a big help in their mission to revive table football as well and TFAS was established in 2009.
“We continued on our quest to create awareness, attending community events and bringing our tables around wherever we could,” Tan said.
“From there, we managed to get (more) new players and also ex-players who used to play the game competitively.”
There are currently 40 to 50 players registered with TFAS and around 30 turn up regularly at each of the three annual local tournaments held during the school holidays in March, June and December.
There are two clubs – Jurong Central and Singapore Lions – that hold weekly training sessions. Players from both clubs also take part in a national league.
TFAS conducts twice-weekly gatherings at the Singapore Sports Hub Library, where they place two tables at the ground level for public usage. Those who are interested can loan the figurines and balls from the counter to use.
“They (Sports Hub) support us tremendously by providing us with this venue and the (space for) equipment storage, so we can use it as a public place to create awareness,” Tan said.
The majority of players are in their 30s and 40s, with the youngest being nine and the eldest at 56. Tan is hopeful that more of the younger generation will pick up table football over their mobile phones and game controllers.
“We are trying to push them to take up the challenge of playing with more seasoned players,” he said. “That’s when the learning process comes in.
“When TFAS organises tournaments, the results are sent to FISTF (world governing body Federation International of Sports Table Football) and players are ranked… it gives a gauge of where we are and most importantly, it gives the younger generation a form of achievement, getting world-ranked in something.”
Creating more awareness is the main focus for TFAS now.
As the equipment is not available for sale, Tan said they have to scale up their presence to reach out to more people, such as staging more demonstrations at public events, like at the inaugural Singapore Football Week later month, and introducing table football to schools.
“If it’s out there, in people’s eyes, at least it’ll arouse curiosity and we are (also) there to show them and teach them,” he said.
Rudy Hesty, Singapore’s top-ranked player at 43rd in the world, hopes that their three successive Asian Cup triumphs have shown that Singapore can excel at table football.
“We really hope others will go into this sport and we have several talented youngsters coming through,” the 42-year-old said.
“Hopefully, schools will also try to adopt this game, as well as more community centres.”
Tan added: “Next year’s World Cup is in Gibraltar and if we manage to go there and get some honours, hopefully it’ll be able to raise our profile.”
As TFAS is self-funded, only those who can afford to travel can go for overseas tournaments.
Flying to Europe costs S$3,000 to S$4,000, while it is around S$2,000 to nearer countries like Japan and Australia. Players source for cheap flights and book them early whenever possible, while also scheduling family holidays to coincide with tournament dates.
“The equipment cost is actually not very high,” Tan added, citing the cost of a table set-up as S$300 to S$400.
“If it’s well taken care of, it can last you for years and some of our teams and figurines are over 20 years old!”
TFAS has also received "kind donations" from the Lee Foundation, Singapore's largest private charitable foundation, while registration fees at local tournaments help to cover operating expenses as well.
WORLD CUP DREAMS
Some of the youngsters have already been to a world championships, like brothers Luke Lim, 14 and Isaac Lim, 12. Both took part in the 2014 edition in Rocherfort, Belgium.
“It was our first World Cup and it was an eye-opening experience,” recalled Luke, who has played since 2013.
“They have higher standards there and we faced tougher opponents, while the level of passion is also higher compared to here.”
Isaac, who was introduced to table football by his father when he was seven, added: “I hope to play the best I can and win every tournament (in future). There’s always a dream (to win the World Cup).”
Making new overseas friends is what Rudy, a police officer, enjoys the most about table football.
“I’ve been to Belgium, Australia and Japan,” he said. “From this game, I’ve managed to have friends from overseas and we communicate through social media, while also meeting up at tournaments.
“It’s very competitive and there’s a lot of passion involved… you have to play this sport to get the feel of it.”
Tan asserted that table football is more than just a game and believes it qualifies to be called a sport.
“Although each match lasts half an hour, because of the many games throughout a tournament, it actually takes a lot of concentration, focus and physical demand as you’ll be standing and moving,” he said.
“It’s a combination of all the demands you need to play any table-top sport like snooker or pool… the demands are totally different from playing board games.”
Australia and Japan are the other two Asia-Pacific countries active in table football and both banded with Singapore to form the Confederation of Asian Sports Table Football Association (CASTFA), an Asian chapter of FISTF, in Tokyo during the recent Asian Cup.
Aimed at supporting the development of sports table football across the Asian region, CASTFA are trying to rope in Malaysia and Indonesia to take up the sport.
Tan envisions building up the community to its past heights and hosting the world championships here.
“I hope to see the number of local players nearing 1,000,” he said. “We have dreams of having tournaments in a large arena, like the OCBC Arena or an exhibition hall in Singapore Expo.
“Maybe one day, with enough support, we can bring the World Cup into Singapore. We’ve talked about it with the main organizing body (FISTF) and there’s a lot of work (to be done), but that is the dream.”
For more information on table football in Singapore, visit https://tfas.sg/.