Historically — maybe you've heard this — German football has been defined by its ruthless commitment to victory. The Mannschaft have won three World Cups, were semifinalists in '06, and are through to the knockout rounds this year. Gary Lineker once said, in a quote that absolutely will not be dragged out and repeated every seven seconds in the buildup to Germany's impending clash against England, that "football is a simple game; 22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans win."
Compared to German table soccer, though, German soccer is the merest zephyr. The world of the professional foosball leagues — they call it "kicker" 'round Stuttgart way — is a harsh, grim, unrelenting place where the pursuit of perfection drives the obsessed to ever-greater heights of discipline and self-denial. Sure, you can play for fun in a bar, if that's your thing. But the moment you take those paddles with the aim of flipping your boys in the Bundesliga (yes, there is a table-soccer Bundesliga, fed by multiple regional leagues), you are entering a zone in which the slightest lapse in focus will see you torn apart by wolves.
As pro player Thomas Hettich says in a recent Deutsche Welle article:
The basic moves you can learn in a few hours. 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.
With an attitude like that, it's no wonder German table soccer is ranked #1 in the world by the International Table Soccer Federation (yes, there is an International Table Soccer Federation, currently gearing up for the 2011 World Cup). Hettich describes the grueling practice regimen necessary for any player who wants to complete at the highest level:
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.
But mere humans are only capable of so much. Recently, a German scientist decided to push the envelope by creating a foosball-playing robot. The scientist's name is Professor Bernhard Niebel and the robot's name is Star Kick. Star Kick beats human players around 75 percent of the time. But this isn't like Deep Blue scrapping to keep up with Garry Kasparov. Star Kick could easily pulverize any human being who dared to lined up against her, but Professor Niebel limits her prowess by giving her weaker cameras for eyes. An unstoppable Star Kick, he says, would be "neither fair, nor entertaining."
Without virtue, there would be no table soccer. Respect.
But the ultimate assessment of this ascetic and demanding vocation comes from Martin Bartke, the captain of a regional team called Kick It Stuttgart:
For me it's a really fun game with a great atmosphere. More people should get involved in the sport.
A really fun game with great atmosphere. Do you hear that, world? Will you heed that warning cry? Whatever happens to the "real" footballers on Sunday, German table soccer is coming, and it is not messing around. Fear the Plastiktoyschaft.