Calcio balilla (Foosball)

If your gut reaction on reading the title was of shock because “it was us who invented it!” don’t worry: you are in good company, as just every country in the world claims to be the sole home of foosball. We don’t even want to dispute that. Fact is, however, that Italy is currently the world leading manufacturer of foosball tables – and it has been since the end of WWII – so it may well be considered an Italian game.

Truth to be told, there is a clue that leads to place the first appearance (if not the invention) of this pastime in Italy in the early 1920s. The word ‘balilla’ is an ancient Italian synonym of ‘kid’, but it really took hold during Fascism, when it was used to indicate the paramilitary corps of youngsters supporting the actual soldiers. Given the political climate, it is very improbable that such a loaded word could be used for a popular game, especially by the many dissidents and after the fall of Mussolini, unless it had been strongly established before fascism became controversial. In short, foosball must have been popular in Italy sometimes around the year 1918 – well before its mentions in other countries. Putting the matter of the invention aside, there is no doubt at all that Garlando, a manufacturer of burial caskets, immediately rose to be the biggest builder of foosball tables worldwide and it still is. The game quickly became a staple of Italian bars, youth clubs, penny arcades and beaches: if today it is still very popular, in the Fifties and Sixties it was plainly inconceivable not to find a foosball table pretty much everywhere.

In 2002 calcio balilla has grown into an actual sport, with official rules and a separate and very vital association for disabled athletes. Most countries have defined their own official rules allowing or forbidding specific moves (the one everyone agrees to ban is the “roll”, or quick and uncontrolled spin of a handle for more than 360°). Italy has, bafflingly enough, insisted to use a very liberal set of rules that put its National Team at a disadvantage during stricter world-class competitions. On the other hand, the lightning-quick coordination between the eyes and the hands required to play a good game of foosball inspired Italian neurosurgeons to use the game as a form of therapy for brain-damaged patients, and the excellent results had many other countries to follow their example.