So­cialS­tudy

Are You Ready for Some Foos­ball?

The Washington Post Sunday - - Sunday Source - By Ju­lia Feldmeier

The first thing the foos­ball play­ers at Crys­tal City Sports Pub do — af­ter they fork over $5 to Monty, the tour­na­ment co­or­di­na­tor, and af­ter they place their drink or­ders with Heather, the perky wait­ress — is wrap the ta­ble han­dle­bars with sport grip, the rub­bery ma­te­rial tra­di­tion­ally ap­plied to ten­nis rack­ets and field hockey sticks.

The ma­neu­ver sug­gests a strange se­ri­ous­ness about a game typ­i­cally as­so­ci­ated with teenagers’ base­ments, re­cre­ation cen­ters and bars, and it makes us won­der:

Is foos­ball — a.k.a. ta­ble soc­cer — hav­ing an iden­tity cri­sis?

Roughly 20 play­ers from all over the Wash­ing­ton area turn up at Crys­tal City Sports Pub each Tues­day night to play “draw your part­ner”-style tour­na­ments, for which they’re typ­i­cally teth­ered to the ta­bles un­til 1 a.m. In­for­mal events such as th­ese have popped up across Wash­ing­ton in the decades since 1975, when Seat­tle foos­baller Lee Pep­pard stirred up com­pe­ti­tion with a Quar­ter Mil­lion Dol­lar tour­na­ment tour.

The foos­ball ex­hib­ited at th­ese tour­neys is not the rat­tle-and-shake foos­ball of our youths. Passes are care­ful and cal­cu­lated; shots are skill­fully whipped past de­fend­ers. Older play­ers pop Advil to ease the back­aches that re­sult from hunch­ing; newer play­ers watch help­lessly as op­po­nents give the ball fast and suc­ces­sive taps — a sign of an on­com­ing “snake” shot, which can be im­pos­si­ble to de­fend.

There are as­pects of the game that, cat­e­gor­i­cally, make it a sport. Play­ers suf­fer in­juries (blis­ters), work up a sweat (de­spite keep­ing their feet firmly planted on the floor) and make fa­cial con­tor­tions (when tour­na­ment co­or­di­na­tor Monty Mel­chior gets poised to shoot, his tongue snakes around his cheek).

Yet the dis­pro­por­tion­ate num­ber of smok­ers in the group sug­gests that lung ca­pac­ity is not req­ui­site for foos­ball. And the bev­er­age of choice is beer, not Ga­torade.

So. Is it sim­ply a hobby? And if not, then what? Mel­chior pauses. “Spobby?” It’s a strange lit­tle word for a strange lit­tle sport that has, it seems, cul­ti­vated a small but fierce fol­low­ing.

Mel­chior, 44 and a Green­belt res­i­dent, has been play­ing com­pet­i­tive foos­ball for 12 years. Five years ago, he took charge of co­or­di­nat­ing the Crys­tal City Sports Pub tour­na­ments. You can find him there ev­ery Tues­day, as­sign­ing teams and keep­ing track of wins and losses so he can ad­just play­ers’ rat­ings and hand­i­caps. Or he’s sta­tioned at one of the venue’s two ta­bles, fiercely tend­ing goal, quick to heckle the op­po­si­tion but even quicker to con­cede an op­po­nent’s well-played shot.

It is, af­ter all, about friendly com­pe­ti­tion. Sure, there’s a jack­pot — the evening’s to­tal tour­na­ment fees — but play­ers say it’s not about the money, which is in­ci­den­tal when you tally the bar tab and the en­try fee and the six or more quar­ters each player dis­penses into the foos­ball ta­bles through­out the night.

Play­ers’ back­grounds are as var­ied as their skill lev­els. There’s Kitty Shad­man, a 51-year-old Catholic­school teacher, and her hus­band, Ah­mad. The Rockville cou­ple played tour­na­ment foos­ball in the 1970s, when they were first mar­ried, but stopped af­ter they had chil­dren, only to pick it up again when they be­came empty-nesters.

There’s Jim Al­le­gretto, 45, a CPA from Ar­ling­ton who plays foos­ball be­cause it’s fun and be­cause, as a bach­e­lor, he has “noth­ing else to do on a Tues­day night,” he says. “It’s not like it’s a date night.”

There’s Sammy Amarti, 30, who grew up play­ing foos­ball in Morocco. Now he runs a hair salon in Alexan­dria and says he’s lucky to have a wife who tol­er­ates his Tues­day night foos­ball ad­dic­tion.

There’s Kristin Gro­gan, 36, a Bal­ti­more res­i­dent who be­gan play­ing tour­na­ment-level foos­ball in mid­dle school and is now con­sid­ered one of the top fe­male play­ers in the re­gion, and Nancy Peck, 33, of Green­belt, Mel­chior’s girl­friend (they met through foos­ball), who has learned a few tricks since the days when she played recre­ation­ally in col­lege.

“I thought I was good, be­cause I was play­ing with all drunk peo­ple,” Peck says. “But then I came here, and I got my butt kicked.”

On a re­cent Tues­day, only seven play­ers turn up, so I drop my re­porter’s notepad to step in as the eighth player needed for a tour­na­ment. By luck — or per­haps clever ar­range­ment by Mel­chior — I am part­nered with Adil Hi­zoune, 39, of El­li­cott City, the Pele of lo­cal foos­ball. He is, thank­fully, as gra­cious as he is skilled, so he does not ap­pear an­gry when I let the ball plunk into the goal be­hind us, twice. No mat­ter, re­ally, be­cause he re­tal­i­ates goal for goal.

But there are mo­ments when I hold my own, when I block shots and score from goal, or when the ball slides back and forth be­tween the plas­tic men on our for­ward line in a dis­play of per­fect lat­eral pass­ing. It is fleet­ing great­ness, but enough to ex­plain the blurry line be­tween hobby and sport. It’s just enough to sense the ad­dic­tion that is foos­ball, to un­der­stand that the more we tighten our grip on the col­or­fully wrapped han­dle­bars, the more the game tight­ens its grip on us.

BY J CAR­RIER FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Jim Al­le­gretto, from left, Fabian Josza, Robert An­der­son and Nancy Peck play foos­ball at Crys­tal City Sports Pub.

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