Tables of Glory

By Farid Lounas1.08.2012Global Policy

Table soccer is one of the world’s most popular leisurely sports. So why isn’t it part of the Olympics?

Table soccer was born over a century ago and quickly spread around the world. Sometimes, the rise of table soccer accompanied the rise of soccer. In other countries, like the US, it became popular despite the relative unimportance of soccer. National subcultures soon developed as countries sought to link table soccer to their particular soccer cultures. The sport has become known as metegol (in Argentina), as ta-ta box (in South Africa), as baby-foot (in France) , as matraquilhos (in Portugal), as foosball (in America), as table soccer or table football (in the UK), as Tischfußball (in Germany), as calico balilla (In Italy), and as tacataca (in Chile). Locals embraced the sport, and table soccer quickly became part of the culture in countries around the world. On the one hand, this was a welcome development as the sport quickly rose to one of the cherished leisure time activities in the world. But the infusion with local culture also made it difficult to create a coherent competitive framework. For years, no international federation existed. While several attempts were undertaken in the 1980s, it wasn’t until 2002 that the sport formally inaugurated its governing body. National organizations and local practices were often critical or hostile towards the internationalization of the sport. Ten years later, the sport has succeeded in giving itself a universal, athletic, and administrative framework while also respecting (as much as possible) a wide range of traditions and playing styles. Regionalism remains an important question and must be protected if we want to preserve the unique appeal of table soccer instead of reducing it to one mandatory playing style. If we streamline our sport, it would lose its history, its diversity, and probably its popularity as well. The success of big events like the world championships (which is highly regarded by players and spectators alike) strengthens our resolve to continue along our path. Past successes and an increased media presence should allow the sport to take the next step. But future developments are still harmed by the relationships (or lack thereof) to other national and international athletic associations. Because of the current organizational framework, a close cooperation with national bodies and government agencies is often unavoidable if one wants to ensure proper qualifications for coaches, equipment for clubs, the staging of competitions, and the financial support of national associations. It’s paradoxical: in some countries, a national federation only becomes recognized by government agencies when the International Olympic Committee or the International Sports Federation “Sportaccord” recognize the respective international federation. But to be recognized by the IOC, an international federation must have at least 40 members which can prove that they have been recognized by their respective governments or National Olympic Committees. It’s a first step that regional governments now recognized table soccer as a proper sport, but the path to Olympic glory is long and marked with obstacles. It would certainly help the development of table soccer if we were allowed to join the Olympic family, but current regulations don’t favor us. For athletes, federations, the media, individual countries, and the sport itself, being allowed to participate in the Olympics would have far-ranging effects. Even a mention of the possibility now elicits limitless hopes and ambitions. We’ve reached a point where the competition between different sports that vie for Olympic status is as intense as the competition between prospective host cities. But let’s indulge in a bit of sports fiction. Let’s imagine that the IOC called a general assembly and was willing to abandon the status quo. Let’s assume that it asked: which values do we want to spread through our members and the Olympic Games? Then, the IOC could offer four basic criteria to assess its funding of different sports: one, how popular is the sport? Two, what physical and economic criteria enable or prevent competition? Three, what is the sport’s educational potential? Four, what technical and physiological aspects dominate the game and affect athletes and the environment? If those were the parameters by which the IOC determined a hierarchy of sports, table soccer would surely be part of the Olympic family. We’d certainly love to parade around the stadium during the next opening ceremony.

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