Back in the 1970s, in a few of the nicer homes in my neighborhood that had “finished basements,” you might see a pool table, a Ping-Pong table — or a foosball table.
Aka table soccer. That addictive, competitive game in which you’d furiously jostle those stick-person players, trying some fancy passes, lining up your defense — but mostly just spinning and pushing and pulling on those handles like a crazy person.
Often with a red Solo cup nearby.
At least, that’s how I played foosball from time to time through high school and college and my early 20s. And I was quite terrible at it.
After that, I never really thought much about foosball — and until I saw the fascinating and engrossing new documentary “Foosballers,” I knew nothing about the world of top-level foosball.
The competitive sports/gaming world has long extended beyond the traditional team and individual sports to include video gamers and Texas Hold ’em poker players, cornhole specialists and axe-throwing greats. It stands to reason a generationally familiar home and pub table game — even something as old-school, no-tech and long past its prime as foosball — would have a professional circuit.
“Foosball” follows the storylines of six top pros — including Tony Spredeman, the Michael Jordan of foosball — in the month and a half leading to “The Tornado World Championship,” which is basically the Super Bowl of foosball.
One player, Ryan Moore, lives in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and operates a marijuana dispensary called Herbal Healing.
Then, there’s Terry Rue, an anesthetist who was once a backup dancer for Marky Mark.
A third contender, Cindy Head, has had a career in law enforcement.
It’s great to meet these colorful and likable characters and learn their stories. As is the case with any memorable sports film, documentary or fiction, the more we know and care about the players, the more we’re invested in the outcome of the big game.
Still, foosball IS a fringe sport. Director Joe Heslinga and writer Mike Wagstaffe acknowledge most of us are at best casually familiar with the game, so they wisely include a brief history of foosball, from its origins in Europe in the early 20th century to its growing popularity in the United States in the 1970s. (Cue a clip from “Dazed and Confused.”)
And they walk us through the progression of the Foosball World Championships, starting with a tournament in Denver in 1974 featuring hundreds of players and a total of $50,000 in prize money.
Throughout the rest of the 1970s, the foosball tour included stops across the United States, with champions taking home five-figure cash prizes and Corvettes and Porsches. Foosball was riding high!
Until Atari, etc., came along, and video arcade games pushed the old-fashioned table game to the back of the pub or the alley garbage bin.
“Foosballers” loses some momentum midway through, as the filmmakers spend a bit too much time chronicling the ups and downs of the sport. But our interest picks up again when we return to the present-day buildup to the world championship.
Even though only a small handful of players make a living at the game (as evidenced by the full-time careers of the aforementioned doctor and dispensary shop owner), there’s no denying their collective passion and dedication as they gear up for a run at the title at the Tornado World Championships in Lexington, Kentucky.
As for the matches: It’s a challenge to capture the essence of the competition when the players are so quick and the action so fast. But, thanks to overhead shots and helpful graphics, we can follow along.
The real drama, though, comes from the reactions of players and their loved ones as they’re eliminated or move on.
Once in a while, as when a play-by-play announcer exclaims, “If you can block the unblockable, you can beat the unbeatable!” (whatever that means) after one big match, “Foosballers” has an almost absurdist quality, like a nonfiction “Dodgeball.” But the filmmakers never condescend to their subjects or make light of how much the game has meant to them and their families.
Millions of us have fond memories of playing foosball, in large part because it’s commonly connected to relatively carefree early adulthood. (On “Friends,” Chandler and Joey clung to their foosball table like a Peter Pan syndrome liferaft.)
For a tiny percentage of talented and dedicated enthusiasts, foosball became something much more than a biographical footnote.
They are “Foosballers,” and this is their story, and it’s pretty cool.