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Foosball anyone? An old game makes a comeback

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A game at the 2006 ITSF World Cup in Germany (Courtesy of ITSF)

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Table soccer is played with these little "foos-men" (Courtesy of ITSF)

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Foosball is a well-organized sport with internationally established rules (Courtesy of ITSF)

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Foosball is a sport people at every skill level and age group can play (Courtesy of ITSF)

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The U.S. National Foosball Team at the 2007 ITSF World Championships (Courtesy of Melissa Keg, Fooswor)

These athletes aren’t necessarily in the best shape, and they don’t push themselves physically to excel at their game. Neither are they famous outside their sport, and, while they make money from their skill, they also work regular jobs to make ends meet. But what they share with other professional athletes is a passion for the game, which in their case is table soccer.

Foosball, as the sport is also known, was a popular bar game in the 1970s that lost its following when video arcades became the rage in the early 1980s. Now, the game is staging a comeback. In the last five years, 62 countries have established competitive leagues and federations, including the United States Table Soccer Federation, which has served as the governing body of amateur and professional “foosies” in the United States since 2002. The U.S. even has a national team that represents the country at the Table Soccer World Championships every fall.

The game’s popularity is reflected in hundreds of local, state and national tournaments held across the country annually. The two biggest are the Valley-Tornado Hall of Fame Classic in Las Vegas and the U.S. Open, which will take place at the Airport Hilton in Atlanta, Ga. from April 17 to 20. These tournaments feature acclaimed domestic and international pros, but also newcomers in every age group.

“The appeal of the game is that anybody and everybody can play it,” said U.S. Open tournament director Mary Moore. “We have players from doctors to construction workers to lawyers. It’s a very addictive sport.”

The game’s setup is pretty simple. In foosball, 22 (sometimes 26) miniature “soccer players” are mounted on eight rods, each with a handle, across a table about four feet long and two feet wide. Each competitor tries to score a goal and block the opponent’s scoring attempts by moving these little “foos-men” from right to left. The player who scores five goals first wins the match. The game can be played as a singles competition or a doubles event where each athlete controls two rods.

While the nature of the game doesn’t require players to be in tremendous physical shape, good eye-hand coordination is a must. The best foosies compete at a pace that makes it difficult to follow the ball, which can travel as fast as 40 mph. Players control the ball by passing it from one “foos-man” to another without letting the opponents’ figures touch it.

Those who have mastered the sport can make a substantial amount of money. Frédéric Collignon, a car salesman from Belgium, currently the No. 1 ranked player in the world, has earned as much as $70,000 a year. In March, he won a combined $7,000 in single and double events at the Tornado classic in Las Vegas.

“To become a professional you have to make foosball a priority in life,” says Tony Spredeman, one of America’s best players and among the favorites at this year’s U.S. Open. “I’ve been practically playing half my life.”

Spredeman rose to foosball fame after winning numerous world championships as a teenager. Fresh out of high school, he practiced several hours a day, five days a week for two years. “I was young and had not much responsibility,” said Spredeman who competed in about 25 major tournaments at home and abroad annually and earned up to $25,000 a year in prize money. He eventually scaled down his efforts when he realized he couldn’t make a living solely playing foosball.

“I stopped because I had reached the top level of play,” says Spredeman, who today works for a sprinkler company in Milwaukee. “Being the best in the world in something and not being able to support myself made me think.”

In the United States, table soccer is still a self-sustaining sport lacking commercial sponsorship. At each tournament players pay entry fees, which are then redistributed as prize money. At the U.S. Open, $40,000 will be up for grabs.

“People know about us, but they haven’t quite gotten the excitement yet,” U.S. Open director Moore said. “The sport is still lacking the proper marketing.” As the founder of Independent Foosball Promotions, which hosts the U.S. Open, Moore is the country’s driving force behind organized foosball. Her IFP tour will give out more than $250,000 in prize money this year. She hopes to increase it to $1 million by 2011 and attract more players to take the sport to a level where it had been once before in the U.S.

Americans first became acquainted with table soccer when U.S. soldiers encountered the game in World War II Germany. In the United States it became popular as “foosball,” a corruption of the German word for soccer. In the 1960s, several European and American manufacturers built the first coin-operated tables for use in bars. The game reached its heyday in the 1970s when American manufacturer Lee Peppard marketed his foosball table by sponsoring a professional tour. By 1978, the tour was paying out $1 million in prize money. After Peppard’s company declared bankruptcy in 1981, the tour ended. With the advent of video games, foosball soon lost its appeal.

“The sport is in a mixed state right now,” said Larry Davis, president of the U.S. Table Soccer Federation. “Internationally, it is growing by leaps and bounds. The U.S. struggles to embrace the game. It’s easier for countries where soccer is a national sport.”

But Davis believes there is potential. In countries like Italy, France, Argentina and China, foosball is already considered an official sport that receives government backing. The U.S., however, does not officially support a sport until it is recognized by the International Olympic Committee. Efforts to get that recognition are in the works.

“This doesn’t mean we are going to participate at the Olympic Games,” Davis said. “But it gives us a lot more visibility and access to sponsorship and second-tier tournaments like the Pan-American, Asian, European and World Indoor games.”

Davis said the game’s appeal lies in the diversity of its players and its accessibility to a variety of athletes. Active players range from a six foot four hall-of-famer to a former midget wrestler. Even the sport’s best players often participate in local tournaments where newcomers can learn from them.

“You don’t get that with any other sport,” said Davis, “Foosball is unique in that the top performers in the world are really down-to-earth people.”