Tabletop soccer game a flicker of imagination

PLAYING AROUND

Howard At Play

April 25, 2004|By LOWELL E. SUNDERLAND

YOU SOCCER nuts may find this startling because there's been no publicity buildup, whatsoever. But an international soccer tournament is on the agenda for an Ellicott City middle school's gym next weekend.

This tournament's to have 30 or so entrants, several of them local - demonstrating yet again there's simply no lack of interest in any aspect of the sport in Howard County.

Competitors from Europe - not to mention one of Sri Lankan heritage and a reputation for wickedly speedy play - will be flying or driving in to compete at Patapsco Middle School on Saturday and next Sunday.

No money will be at stake, but international points will be - a big deal for aficionados, which is why they're headed here instead of to Alexandria, Va., where this event was originally scheduled to be played.

Players are ranked nationally, as well as internationally, and it's difficult, not to mention expensive, to accumulate a lot of world-class points. But, hey, grab some points in the Big E.C., then truck on up to Toronto for next weekend's international event.

The game is Subbuteo. It's a soccer niche that resembles -real abstrusely - marbles shot indoors on a green felt tabletop.

No, it's not the tabletop soccer you're probably imagining, the one you see most often in beer commercials or at garage sales. That's the one with lines of chubby players impaled on parallel rods that (sometimes) lubricated adult players twirl and jiggle with a vengeance. That's foosball, and it's literally not in the same league with Subbuteo.

"It's a very tactical game, very much a finesse game," said Paul Eyes, who lives in Columbia's Long Reach village and is building something of a reputation in youth soccer in the county, and a modified garage for his Subbuteo ... stuff - two "pitches," 300 teams worth of tiny plastic players, collectibles back to the 1950s.

Subbuteo is played by two human opponents on a 48- by 30-inch felt field, proportional to a real soccer field. For two 15-minute halves, each competitor controls 11 players - 1 1/4 -inch tall plastic men glued on rocker bottoms.

You play offensively by flicking one of your players with your index fingernail, trying to have him strike and, thus, advance the plastic ball, ultimately, into you opponent's goal. You flick defenders to intercept your opponent's passes and shots or interrupt his players. Ideally, play alternates, but it doesn't have to.

One man can be advanced no more than three consecutive flicks, and then you must flick another. You use as many as you can flick. Play, Eyes said, can be extraordinarily fast or more deliberate. Scores typically correspond to regular soccer - 1-0, 2-1, 3-2, etc.

"You'll see players who receive passes from other players while in full motion," said Eyes. "It requires a lot of skill."

Eyes, who grew up in Manchester, England (still grooves on Man City, won't touch anything in Man-U red and gold), began playing the tabletop game as a boy back home, he said. That was in the 1970s.

Now that he's retired from playing in the county men's league, the enthusiastic earth sciences teacher at Patapsco Middle has channeled his passion for "football" into coaching and Subbuteo.

He's coached Mount Hebron's JV boys team for three seasons; the Vikings were 11-0 last fall. He's coached a travel team for western Howard County's Thunder Soccer Club. And he mentors a Subbuteo club at Patapsco Middle School. Six of his former players, he said, will compete in next weekend's tournament, as will he.

Eyes is one of seven players tied for the 21st spot in U.S. men's rankings, found on the American Subbuteo Association's Web site. He recently played in his first national tournament, in Durham, N.C., where he won the consolation title and won five of seven matches. He's proud of tying 2002 U.S. champ Rick Wilcox, 1-1, and losing to current champ Gregg Deinhart, 3-2, a heart-breaker that he had led 2-1 with about six minutes left.

Admission next weekend is free, Eyes said, and games at Patapsco Middle are to begin about 9 a.m. Play is typical of tournament soccer, with each competitor having several opening round games and winners advancing to a knockout round.

Ideas? Interesting people or teams we should know about? Call the writer at 410-332-6525 or send e-mail to lowell.sunderland@baltsun.com.

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