The History of Foosball

How a box of matches inspired table soccer.

Photo Credit: Alex Proimos — Creative Commons

Have you ever played foosball? Maybe that friend you had at school had a table at home. Or maybe you wasted hours playing table soccer at a bar during your years at university. Your only move was to relentlessly spin the rods around until you scored, right? Well, when it comes to playing foosball correctly— and competitively — it’s a little more subtle.

The history of foosball is somewhat contentious as various tabletop games were reported as early as the 1890s. But the earliest known patent was granted to Englishman Harold Searles Thornton on November 1st, 1923.

Two years earlier, with the popularity of football growing rapidly throughout Europe, 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 the tabletop game that plays very similar to its real life counterpart. He called it ‘Foosball’ — taken from the German pronunciation of football.

Credit: Max Anderson

Foosball was later patented in the United States in 1927 by Thornton’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.

It wasn’t until the 60s and 70s that it began to take off in the US. But suddenly, tables could be found in pool halls and pubs throughout the United States and tournaments 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.

The ITSF implemented a set of universal rules which results in a slower, more tactical game where passing and possession is very important. Oh, and spinning is strictly prohibited.

Spinning of the rods is illegal. Spinning is defined as the rotation of any soccer figure more than 360 degrees before or more than 360° after striking the ball. In calculating the 360° you do not add the degrees spun prior to striking the ball to the degrees spun after striking the ball.

There’s also several types of tables that affect gameplay and your tactical approach.

For a game that was inspired by football it’s no surprise that foosball has taken on many of the traits and values of the beautiful game itself. Different countries and cultures have their own playing styles and traditions and foosball is open to anyone, promoting community and diversity. But just remember, no spinning.

This article was adapted from Episode 8 of By Association. Hear the full story.

By Association is an award-winning narrative podcast about football and the human connection behind the beautiful game. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts.

Enjoy this story? Help spread the word about By Association. Hit the 👏 button and share it with your football-loving friends!