Circular plastic buttons move up a smooth green pitch. After a successful pass from number 7, the attacking player declares the intention of number 10 to shoot for goal. The opponent arranges their rectangular goalkeeper. The diminutive ball flies quickly by its right side. A resounding voice screams: “Goooooooal!”
Brazil’s button football is an analogue tabletop game played with buttons or even bottle caps that has seen a surge during the COVID-19 pandemic as people were forced inside in order to avoid infection, benefiting from the streaming of matches online while fans couldn’t watch them together in person.
This upheaval astonished me. I used to play button football as a child but drifted away as years went by. The news brought back endearing memories of having matches with my brothers and neighbours - or getting wrecked by my childhood buddy Jamil.
Many afternoons have crowned kids around Brazil as champions of their households, schools and clubs in button football matches throughout generations. The holy grail teams are made of fibreglass instead of plastic, but those were more expensive and harder to find during my days as a peewee. (I had one fibreglass button given to me by my uncle, who introduced me to the game.)
Inspired by the world’s most popular sport, button soccer features 11 button players controlled by at least two humans commanding their teams on each side of a tabletop “pitch”, vying to score goals under rules that can vary depending on where you play. The universal rules require players to give movement to the buttons by using another disc in a downward motion to jump them forward, not unlike a tiddlywink.
In São Paulo state, where I hail from, there are 12 “touches” per team per possession - no more than three with any one piece - and the game is divided into two halves of ten minutes. This leads to a scoring rate higher than mainstream football. In Rio de Janeiro state, meanwhile, they allow three touches per team per possession and shots on goal can only be performed following a pass, making the scoring rate closer to professional football, with the duration split between two 25-minute periods.
Brazil has 6,000 active button football players who participate in official competitions and more than 100,000 non-affiliated players.
If players want something harder, they can play with Bahia state rules, which also have two 25-minute halves but permit only one touch per team per possession - plus two at the onset of play, including kick-off, half-time, throw-ins and goal kick plays. This variant is the most difficult and keeps the score low, leading to a more strategic match.
According to the Brazilian Confederation of Table Football (Confederação Brasileira de Futebol de Mesa), which oversees the activities of local state federations spread through the nation, Brazil has 6,000 active button football players who participate in official competitions and more than 100,000 non-affiliated players, while thousands more are spread throughout the globe.
“Table football grew a lot during the pandemic as its participants couldn’t go out due to the ‘Stay at Home’ campaign, so they turned to the sport, bought new teams and faced their close ones,” CBFM president Jorge Farah tells Dicebreaker. “The companies that work with button football produced and sold [pieces and tabletops] as never seen before, bringing new teams for those who emerged in it. It was a real boom that led to a great growth of the sport; still, [the reason was] not what was desired.”
Before the pandemic, button football tournaments were attended by hundreds of spectators. During the health crisis, however, the 2020 Rio de Janeiro championship had to be streamed online. Brazil is ranked as the country with the second-most COVID-19 deaths and the third in terms of total infections, according to the World Health Organisation.
“With the pandemic many folks became reclusive, and part of the population was able to keep distance from social contact; so, relations became more virtual,” says Mara Rovida, professor and researcher in Communications at the University of Sorocaba, located in the countryside of São Paulo. “Still, there is another part of society where a household is divided by many family members or more than one family while there are also people who need to go out to make ends meet.”
Farah points to the internet as “a great ally to the sport” during the pandemic, as it enabled the streaming of competitions, management of the sport, social media appeal and maintenance of exclusive channels, such as YouTube and social media pages like Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, dedicated to button football.
This merger of analogue and digital allowed meetings between button football managers from 20 states “in a country of continental dimensions and in a sport of few financial resources,” says Farah.
The recent development of the tabletop diversion surprised Brazilian sports journalist André Carbone, to whom the dawn of football video games - which have evolved with more and more realistic titles, such as the FIFA series - caused him to never consider the comeback of an analogue alternative.
The excess of screen time during the pandemic led people to other entertainment routes that allowed some interaction.
Carbone presumes “that people got bored at home, and even children became tired of video gaming”. Still, for the journalist, the only downside is if someone lives by themselves and can’t gather with other folks to enjoy the tabletop game. Nevertheless, solo options exist in one of the button football apps available online, such as Soccer Stars or Super Button Soccer. Football, like the carnival parade, is a staple of Brazilian life.
“The excess of screen time [during the pandemic] led people to other entertainment routes that allowed some interaction,” Rovida says. “As the game [button football] doesn’t occupy too much room - as it can be played on a kitchen table, in the living room or anywhere else - the diminutive space relegated by isolation wouldn’t be an issue to playing it. Other tabletop games were also employed for those looking for entertainment without needing a screen intermediating conversation.”
Button football was inspired by traditional football, which was brought to Brazil in 1875 by British immigrants and popularised the following decade by the efforts of legendary SPAC striker Charles Miller - after which it became a constant in the country’s cultural life.
Button football is believed to have been created in the early 1910s. (The exact date is uncertain, as by 1920 it was already reported in newspapers.) It was only in 1983 that it was regulated by Brazilian authorities as an official sport. The invention and birthplace of the game is unclear; aside from Brazil, it was recorded around the same time in Eastern Europe, in particular Hungary.
Farah believes that the game is ingrained in Brazil because it allows people of different backgrounds to play in equal conditions. The game allows intergeneration matches between grandparents and grandchildren, as well as mixed-sex matches that aren’t much seen in other sports. That’s not to mention its portability and relation to football.
The game allows players to manage and coach their teams, to create plays, customise their players, and enables the development of children as they use their intellect and creativity alongside social skills. Farah reinforces that button football has its peculiarities and its own life aside mainstream football.
Like me, Carbone is an elder millennial who grew up during Brazil’s video game rising. For us and those who came after, button football took a backseat or even wasn’t played at all. But for those who preceded us, it was magical - and many passed it to their descendants.
“It’s clear that my father’s generation, who was born in the 1950s, played a lot in their childhood,” Carbone recalls. “That particular generation has a lot of memories of this game. They took shirt buttons to play, and they obviously named the buttons based on their soccer idols. My father always says: ‘Whoa, this player was huge, I liked him so much that he was my player at button football.’ That was a huge honour.
“Decades later, I can say that the button football has experienced its own evolution with official rules, like the size of the button and the table and the balls [which can be replaced by tiny discs]. My generation is the first video game one [in Brazil], so we divided our time on that, which doesn’t bring so many memories of button football, but it’s definitely something that passes from father to son.”
The pandemic has wreaked havoc in Brazil; in spite of that, younger and new players are discovering the pleasures of being a member of their favourite button football clubs or national teams. Even in a friendly game against a friend or a relative, the tabletop game allows them to become football heroes in their own narratives.