In 1921, with the popularity of football growing rapidly throughout Europe, Englishman, Harold Searles Thornton wanted to create a game that replicated football that people could play in their homes.
Inspiration struck with a box of matches. The matches were lying parallel across the top of the box, extending past the edges. This idea was developed into a tabletop game that plays very similar to its real life counterpart. He called it ‘Foosball’ – taken from the German pronunciation of football.
Despite Thornton’s invention, the exact history is somewhat contentious as similar tabletop games were reported as early as the 1890s. But the earliest known patent belongs to Harold himself, submitted on October 14, 1921 and accepted on November 1st, 1923.
Foosball was later patented in the United States in 1927 by Harold’s uncle and US resident, Louis P. Thornton. Louis became fond of the game while visiting his nephew in the UK and took the concept back to North America. Although originally intended as a fun activity to be played in the home, it was competitive foosball in European bars and cafes that really saw the game rise in popularity around the 1950s.
But it wasn’t until the 60s and 70s that it began to take off in the US. Suddenly, tables could be found in pool halls and pubs throughout the United States and competitions with big prize money were very common.
Whether you call it table football, table soccer or foosball, these days it’s popular all over the world, not just as a pub game, but in many countries a recognised sport. There’s even a world governing body, the International Table Soccer Federation or ITSF, established in France in 2002. There are national and local federations too, representing over 65 countries. National and regional tournaments are held regularly and there’s even a Table Soccer World Cup.
Many people are introduced to the game of foosball from a young age, which quite often involves the relentless spinning of the rods in an attempt to score. But when it comes to actual competition, things are a little more subtle.
The ITSF implemented a set of universal rules which results in a slower, more tactical game where passing and possession is very important. And just like football, different countries and cultures have their own playing styles and traditions. There’s also several types of tables that affect gameplay and your tactical approach.
A game inspired by football has taken on many of the values and traits that make football itself so appealing. It promotes community, diversity and it’s open to anyone.