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By Noah Masterson

JANUARY 25, 1999:  Once you're in your twenties, you begin to notice that your friends are slowly becoming grownups. There are signs. They trash their milk crate bookshelves and buy real ones; they frame pictures instead of sticking them to the wall with snot; they frequent the malls more than the thrift stores. I pray it never happens to me.

And then there's the friend who, with his newfound disposable income, buys toys. My best friend and his girlfriend recently went halfsies on a foosball table. The damn thing occupies 75 percent of his living room. But what fun!

If you think you're unfamiliar with foosball, you're not. You just didn't know it was called foosball--or table soccer, to some. It's the game with the spinning rods and little plastic men that you see at arcades, college student unions and bars everywhere.

Prior to playing foosball, I was under the impression that skill at foosball is inversely proportional to sexual prowess. After playing foosball at my friend's house a few times, I realized that as long as I was engaged in a rousing foosball match, nary a sexual thought entered my head. So I guess I was right.

The origin of foosball is the German word fussball--which literally means foot, plus ball. The inventor of foosball is a point of contention among foosball aficionados (may God have mercy on their souls). By some accounts, the inventor of the first foosball table was a Frenchman named Lucien Rosengart, who lived from 1880 to 1976 and called the game "babyfoot." Rosengart is also credited with inventing the minicar (remember Le Car?), front wheel drive and the seat belt. Perhaps his claims are spurious; he seems to take credit for a lot of stuff.

It was in Germany that foosball thrived first--in the '20s and '30s--and because Germany can probably kick France's ass at everything but crêpe-making, we're willing to give credit to the Germans.

It wasn't until after World War II that foosball caught on in the rest of Europe and the United States. One theory is that the game received a popularity boost from rehabilitating war veterans who sought to improve hand-eye coordination. Today foosball rehabilitates our nation's prisoners; tables are found in many state and federal correctional institutions.

To its estimated 1.9 million players, foosball can be highly competitive. Tournaments in Europe have been organized since 1950. In 1976, different leagues in Europe united to form the European Table Soccer Union, which now holds an annual competition for the European Cup. European players bickered over different brands of playing table--each country wanted theirs to be the official standard. Not so in the States.

While foosball was born in Europe, it wasn't until the Yanks got a hold of the sport that it really took off. American players' capitalist spirit upped the ante, with standardization of rules and a sizable increase in prize money. At the first World Foosball Championships in May of 1979, the prize money was $250,000. The Europeans trounced the Americans, but, in the long run, the good ol' U.S. of A. came out on top; most foosball players worldwide now play on tables manufactured in America.

If you want to try your hand(s) at foosball, I suggest one thing before you swagger to a table and go head-to-head with a pro: avoid the impulse to spin the rods. It's illegal and will draw attention to your status as a beginner. Also, remember that foosball can be highly addictive; try to get some sunlight and meals every now and then.

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