Table football or 'kicker' as it's often known as in Germany, is not just a pub game, but a serious sport. So competitive, that one professor has even made a robot that can challenge the best players.
Germany has hundreds of competitive kicker clubs
The German soccer team seeking victory in South Africa this June could do worse than take some tips for success from their table soccer counterparts. Currently, Germany is the number one country in the International Table Soccer Federation (ITSF) rankings.
An always popular pub game, table football, also known as 'foosball' and here in Germany, 'kicker,' has also grown in status as a professional sport, with countries like Germany boasting hundreds of kicker clubs and teams. These passionate players highlight the world of difference between the game played in bars, and the tournaments that attract thousands of spectators to watch the top players in action.
Taking up the sport
Making the transition from pub player to professional player is something that 25 year old Thomas Hettich hopes to do. He started off playing for fun eight years ago, but is now president of the local table football club in Aidlingen, just outside Stuttgart.
The TFC. Aidlingen players train in a local youth club
"The basic moves you can learn in a few hours," Hettich told Deutsche Welle. "But to progress from a pub player to a professional, the concentration is higher, the control of the ball is higher, it's faster… To be perfect you need weeks, months, years."
TFC. Aidlingen play in the Baden-Wuerttemberg league, which is one of several regional leagues in Germany. The best teams in these leagues are promoted to the national league (or bundesliga). Unlike soccer, there is not the money in table soccer to have weekly matches, so these leagues are often decided at big tournaments during the year.
Aidlingen's local rivals Stuttgart are one of the teams that has made it to the national level.
One rule is that all team players have to wear uniforms
Whereas Hettich's team-mates train in their own space in a local youth club, the Kick It Stuttgart players do their training at a local bar. The setting may be more relaxed but the passion for foosball is just as serious.
Stuttgart captain Martin Bartke is such a keen player that he even convinced his girlfriend to get a kicker table in their house.
"For me it's a really fun game with a great atmosphere," said Bartke. "More people should get involved in the sport."
"Currently with Kick It Stuttgart we're one of the best teams in Baden-Wuerttemberg and we're on the way in the national league and maybe internationally too," he adds.
Training for success
As with any sport, the best players are both naturally talented but also committed to their training regimes.
"The very good players train for three or four hours every day. Standing alone at the table passing and shooting, practicing the basic two or three moves," Hettich said.
Also for sporting foosball players, they come to their games equipped to do battle. Golf gloves and tennis racquet grips double up as the must-have foosball player accessories.
Human v Robot
Prof. Niebel says the Star Kick robot wins 75% of games
Table football is such a passion in Germany, one man has used his talent for robotics to try and tap into this culture. Professor Bernhard Niebel at the University of Freiburg has created a robot that in 75 percent of cases can beat a human player at table soccer.
Known as 'Star Kick', the robot looks like an arcade game, with one side of the kicker table taken up by a large machine. The table has a glass bottom so the robot can track the ball using infra red cameras. Then motors control the levers on the table.
The robot's big advantage is having cameras for eyes. The cameras pick up 25 frames a second, whereas the average human eye is only catching 10 to12 frames a second. Professor Niebel says the robot could use high-speed cameras which would capture several hundred frames a second, and the robot would be "unbeatable".
"But this is neither fair, nor entertaining," says Niebel.
There are three levels of difficulty that you can challenge the robot on, and even on the easy level the robot is a good match for the average player. When asked if the robot is a better player than a human, Niebel responds: "depends on the human!"
"Once it played against Thierry Mueller who is one time world champion and Mueller was easily able to beat it. So there is a long way to go until we can play at the level of a national champion," Niebel said.
Is it a sport?
Even with its own bundesliga, referees, passionate players and essential accessories, many would say table football has a long way to go before it is truly termed a sport.
Germany's top players train for 3-4 hours every day
"It is definitely a sport," claims Stuttgart player Holger Bitterberg. "You need energy and skill. After a long tournament, I feel dead, I'm wiped out," he adds.
"You do use your whole body and really exert yourself," adds his teammate Bartke.
The Stuttgart and Aidlingen players agree that to be a top foosball player you need to be mentally alert and ready for long psychological battles against your opponent.
"What I find interesting is that you are always facing your opponent, you can look them in the eyes and try to work out what they'll do next," said Bitterberg. "It's all about psychology."
At the 2010 foosball World Cup, 15,000 spectators watched the world's best players battle it out over a weekend tournament. To keep up a high level of concentration, and to remain calm under pressure is what these players thrive on. The next World Cup is in January 2011 and Germany's players are readying themselves to defend their top three position.
Although the financial rewards may pale in comparison with the top names in soccer, at least the average player of table football can look forward to a long career. The injury rate is considerably lower and people can keep playing however old they are.
It is just one of the reasons Thomas Hettich loves the sport. "It's possible you are standing on one table with four generations playing table soccer together," he said. "It doesn't matter how old you are, where you come from or if you are male or female. It doesn't matter."
Author: Catherine Bolsover
Editor: Rob Turner