While the pandemic has hit the sports world hard globally, one Brazilian sport, which has been played in the country since at least the 1920s, has found a way to survive by streaming itself and connecting players on the internet.
Called “button soccer,” the premise of the game is very similar to that of regular soccer—11 players on each side competing to score goals with a ball—except it’s played on a table with buttons. After more than a hundred years, button soccer remains extremely popular. There are around 6,000 players who actively participate in competitions and over 100,000 non-affiliated players in Brazil alone, and thousands more all over the world, according to the Brazilian Confederation of Table Football. Tournaments are attended by hundreds of people at a time, and countless unofficial competitions are held all over the world.
Because of the pandemic, the 2020 Rio de Janeiro championship was streamed entirely online. “In order to maintain some activity among our community members during the social isolation period, we ran a league with the Soccer Stars app,” says Table Football Federation of Rio de Janeiro communications director José Carlos Cavalheiro. “Initially, it was only for federated athletes from Rio de Janeiro, but later we expanded it to people who were somehow connected to table football. We used Facebook to stream a few preselected games on Wednesdays and Sundays.”
Available for iOS and Android, Soccer Stars is a popular free-to-play soccer app downloaded over 2.3 million times for Android alone, and it is the one used to stream matches on Facebook. According to Cavalheiro, the app and the table soccer game are very different in terms of rules and game configuration, and it was used exclusively as a “temporary alternative during the pandemic.”
But the situation is still far from ideal; the pandemic is not over, and in-person events are still severely restricted. Humberto Scavinsky, journalist and director of the São Paulo State Table Football Federation, explains that the last in-person championship in São Paulo was played in March 2020, and “we have no idea when we will officially start playing again.” And the situation is not unique to Brazil. István Martónfi, vice president of the International Table Football Confederation, explains that “globally, during the pandemic only a few local championships were organized, only in small communities. It is a very bad and unfortunate situation. We have to survive. We lost some friends, leaders, managers, fathers, players. But we can’t stop; we need to build the future. Because of Covid, we are working nowadays more on future plans and paperwork.”
An Analog Sport
The face-to-face, “analog” version of button soccer is not just child's play. Competitions draw large crowds and gather players from different parts of the country and even other parts of the world. As an amateur sport, prizes are usually just trophies and medals; there’s rarely money involved. In general, the championships are played on weekends, and in the case of national or international competitions, on holidays, making life easier for those who need to travel and cannot miss work or have families.
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The “players” in this game are the buttons, specially made discs usually made of resin, but they can also be made of anything, from bottle caps to even anthropomorphic figurines, in a soccer-like flat pitch. And old buttons are in high demand by collectors, just as a specialized and very artisanal company keeps producing hundreds of "teams" every month for players and collectors, printing symbols and colors of famous soccer clubs or the colors of clubs created by fans of the sport.
Luciano Araújo, a designer, decided to organize a small button soccer tournament with his family on the eve of the 2014 World Cup, but he couldn't find all his old pieces. Searching the internet, he discovered that some artisans were selling the pieces he remembered, and he decided to make his own, creating the largest online store of its kind in Brazil, Botões Clássicos, or Classic Buttons.
There are several different types of play, as well as codes of conduct and regional, national, and international rules, with championships played within and between different countries.
A Child’s Passion
Button soccer usually begins as a childish passion. For those who grew up before the internet era, it was one of the most beloved and common pastimes in Brazil. While a good number find other hobbies as they grow up, many others decide to carry their passion further, setting up clubs, federations, and more. Others travel the world to compete in amateur competitions, often spending their own money on these adventures.
And that passion is passed on from generation to generation. Araújo explains that his father had button teams in the '70s and also kept the teams that his grandfather used in his youth, made of jacket buttons. Born in 1975, he says that “in the early 1980s, button soccer was my greatest passion, it was my first contact with soccer actually.”
Cavalheiro followed a similar path. “I can speak for myself and for almost the entire ‘botonist’ community. The passion for button soccer arises during our childhood. Basically, this passion is a playful transposition of field soccer to a wooden table with buttons of the most different materials.”
Igor Quintaes, Vasco da Gama's athlete since the team founded its button soccer department in 2003, has even been a two-time world champion. Like others, he started playing when he was a child. “My father gave me the first table and teams. I also played a lot with my grandfather on the dining room table, which was bigger, and used breadcrumbs to make the balls. Then with my cousins at home and friends on the street.”
Sandro de Lima, who plays for Corinthians, notes that “in the 1980s almost every boy had a button soccer team. It was the norm.” Now, button soccer is not that famous, and the older generation is finding it harder to attract the youth to feel the same excitement and joy. Lima says that “when we play table soccer, we feel like a real soccer player. You do your moves on the field, and there is also that magic of mixing players in the same team. You can put Pelé and Messi together, and we feel a little bit of that childish joy.”
The Pandemic and the Future
"Attracting new fans to table soccer is difficult, especially because of video games,” explains Lima. He says that it is common for children to become interested, but during adolescence they find other interests. Then, when they are older, with their lives stabilized, they return to the game. At last that's how it used to go. Nowadays, many are switching permanently to video games.
“This is perhaps our greatest difficulty,” says Quintaes. “There is no renewal because children today don't play anymore. Consequently, there are no new players. It's hard to compete with video games and computer games of the latest generation.”
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But Araújo disagrees. He believes it is possible for button soccer and video games to coexist, to be complementary. It depends on the parents to encourage it, to play with their children, to have the patience to explain the rules and share their passion with their kids, he says
And Araújo's passion for button soccer is so great that he not only maintains an online store but also has a button-soccer-themed bar that hosts championships and friendly competitions. At his bar, he saw “many parents that are encouraging their children to play,” he says. The bar also helps promote championships for them—and the children end up identifying the teams they watch on TV with the button teams they create and play with.
Button soccer is not exactly cheap. Even if you’re not taking part in official tournaments, “the tables, teams, goalkeepers, palettes are expensive,” says Quintaes. There’s also the lack of publicity—little space in the media is given to the sport. But enthusiasts have stepped in here as well, creating Mundo Botonista, a portal dedicated to button soccer, and its YouTube channel, where “analog” matches are streamed, and debates, tips, and more are available for the fans.
Despite being an analog game, combined with the fact that it’s not the easiest sport to get into, being eclipsed by the popularity of video games, and of course, the Covid-19 pandemic, button soccer persists. It’s a sport that attracts players from all over the world, and with the help of streaming, collaborative online play, and a new generation of fans, it’s a cultural touchpoint that can survive for years to come.
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