Skip to main content
If you click on a link and make a purchase we may receive a small commission. Read our editorial policy.

Dini And The Wonderkids: A History Of Football Games

A load of old balls

FOOTBALL. It's been on your telly for the last few weeks and it's staying there for a few weeks more. FOOTBALL. Every supermarket is full of products adorned with the looming faces of men who kick balls for a living. FOOTBALL. It's only gone and found its way onto RPS as well.

The World Cup comes but once every four years and it's a time of celebration and eventual heartbreak for many, and numbing ennui for many more. In honour of the tournament so far, which has been refreshingly full of goals and only the occasional nil-nil draw or shoulder-chomp, I've written a brief but definitive history of football games.


Many people believe that flamboyant stage magician Dino ‘The Magnificent’ Dini invented football in 1989, when he pulled top-down ball-twatter Kick Off out of his sleeve during a landmark performance on Blackpool pier. He’d reached past his cuff in search of a dove but came out clutching a footy game that ACE magazine described as ‘thoroughly enjoyable’, ‘a winner’ and ‘definitely worth considering’. It’s a great story but unfortunately it simply isn’t true. People had been stroking balls around the green with their feet for years when Dini came onto the scene.

Football was actually invented in 1981, when a gaggle of European gentry decided to occupy Colombia via the Trojan Horse of an international sporting competition. Being posh gits, they would have preferred dressage, bloodsports or skiing but chose football because international flights charged a heavy surplus for horses, guns and skis, but would allow kit and balls to be stashed in hand luggage. The basic rules were drawn up on the back of a beermat in the Pitcher And Post, João Havelange’s favourite alehouse, and preparations for the tournament that would become the FIFA World Cup were soon underway.

Is it a corner? Is it a cross? Is it an early piece of concept design for Hotline Miami 2?

Five years of hard slog later, Argentina had won the cup but they’d toiled and tackled their way to victory in Mexico rather than Colombia. The switch of host country occurred when FIFA realised that there was ‘shite all worth exploiting in their original choice’, and that star player Diego Maradona’s taste for mescal and jalapeños would be better dealt with a couple of thousand miles to the north. The Argentina captain’s infamous first goal against Engerlund Engerlund Engerlund was the focus of the first ever digital football game, Peter Shilton’s Handball Maradona (1986).

If that seems like an extraordinary title (and the sort of thing Richard Keys shouts when he wakes up at 3am in a cold sweat), it is at least preferable to this year’s forthcoming Steven Gerrard’s A Little Bit Dull And Shite In Comparison To Pirlo’s Foot Suarez’ Teeth The Entire Costa Rica Team A Passing Breeze, which is due to hit Kickstarter next week. Unlike later football games, Peter Shilton’s Handball Maradona only allows the player to control goalkeepers because the technology to prevent ball-handling and to animate gloveless appendages did not yet exist.

Outfield players were first captured digitally in Match Day II (1987; Match Day I was an unrelated game about a pyromaniac in a trouser factory), although there were only seven people on each team due to a resource shortage caused by the Manic Miner Strike that had closed down pixel shafts all across England. The most notable victim of the strike was Denton Designs’ otherwise excellent The Great Escape - two of the prison’s walls had to be removed during post-production so that the requisite raw materials could be exported to Japan for use in the first Dragon Quest and Castlevania games.

the game could be completed in four seconds, simply by walking north

Match Day II did at least allow for control of both direction and elevation, catering for all manner of balls – high, low, long, short and horribly scuffed. It also had teams called Bombay Mix, Legs Eleven and Kevs Cosmos because it was British. And because no real football team would license their players’ likenesses when it was probable that they’d all end up looking like this.


Licensing began in 1988, when advanced dot matrix scanning techniques allowed developers to recreate a footballer’s physique and facial expressions with a degree of accuracy never before seen. Peter Beardsley’s International Football and Emlyn Hughes International Soccer capitalised on this new technology by putting their titular stars in an Acrimonious Scanley motion capture device and presenting them on screen to the amazement of millions.

the inch-perfect rendering of Emlyn Hughes is used as the model for every player in the game. The resemblance was so accurate that it reportedly caused Hughes to react with fear and anger, claiming he had been ‘cloned’. His furious letter to Audiogenic Software about the incident was the inspiration for Bjork’s hit, Army Of Me

Then we come to Kick Off. Abandoning the triple-A trappings of licensed titles, Kick Off built on the things that really mattered. A large scrolling pitch viewed from a top-down perspective and the kind of fast action that made football seem like a degenerate version of pinball played with real men. It was marvellous and caused many parents to believe that their children had developed a sudden and alarming interest in global politics as they were heard to proclaim the virtues of the U.S.S.R.

To be fair to any children of the eighties converted to the cause, the Soviets were ludicrously fast and by far the best team in the game. Kick Off, then, may be an early example of a game being used as a vessel to discreetly poison the minds of the youth. A foot-to-ball sleeper agent. Forget Hot Coffee – this was Chilled Vodka and it was hiding in full-view.

a confused and lost Beardsley running down a racing track while kicking a cannon ball, July 1987

Whatever its agenda might have been, Kick Off was ruddy excellent. A sequel added a management mode – the imaginatively titled Player Manager - utilising the same engine but allowing players to handle off-pitch decisions as well as hoofing a ball around. The late eighties and early nineties were a dark time for English football, and the game reflects that, with references to deadly stadium fires and hooliganism. These events are triggered when the player attempts to hoard money, as a sort of natural check.

The greatest thing about Player Manager is a bug that occurs in long-maintained save games. According to Wikipedia:

“The original player manager (you) that is created reverts to his original pace, stamina and agility at 107 years old, as it is possible to keep him playing well beyond what is considered a feasible and safe playing age. His skills, such as shooting, tackling etc. remain at their improved ratings (usually 190+). In effect, if you play for 79 seasons the result is the best possible player within the game. (It is unknown whether this applies again at 214 years old).”

In a rare update of my bucket list*, I am now determined to find out if it does apply again at 214 years old.

A football team, yesterday

Management games changed forever in 1992 when the first iteration of Championship Manager was released. Featuring a persistent world, which has become more elaborate and involving in subsequent versions, the series continues to be at the top of the pile. It’s called Football Manager now though and the series called Championship Manager is somewhere near the bottom of the pile, like the goalscorer whose teammates jump on top of him, all sweaty and lumpy and uncouth. He never quite recovers.

1992 is notable for one other reason – Sensible Soccer. Kick Off’s more sophisticated cousin, it’s the top-down football game to rule them all. Well, until its sequel, Sensible World of Soccer came along a couple of years later. It’s still one of the best football games ever made, possibly only topped by Sensible Soccer Meets Bulldog Blighty, which combined Cannon Fodder and football to hilarious and gruesome effect. Using a live action grenade instead of a ball was considered a jape in the nineties whereas now it would be cause for a series of concerned op-eds about the dangerous blurring of lines between healthy rugged manly competition and unhealthy rugged manly historical warfare.

Football's never been so much fun

Just before the release of SWOS, plucky underdog outsiders Electronic Arts released the first of their FIFA games. FIFA International Soccer had an exploit that allowed players to score goals simply by standing in front of the goalkeeper and allowing balls to ricochet off their knobbly knees and straight into the net. EA’s shame was so great that little has been heard from them on the football front since.

Indeed, football more or less came to an end in the mid-nineties. The Pro Evolution Soccer series has been good, best, bad and sort of indifferent in alternating years, and various oddities have come and gone. A seismic change did occur when this very periodical coined the term 'foot-to-ball' in 2008.

In the spirit of unsponsored homegrown talent that has seen the English game rise to such glorious heights, the greatest innovation of recent years was the eventual commercial and critical success of Simon Read’s New Star Soccer series, which places players in the boots of a single ball player (gent or lady in the latest) and adds RPG trappings, including the ability to buy tacky designer gear and a racehorse.

Read wisely signs for Bath - it's the home of game journalism and he knows it.

It’s a lovely game and, along with Football Manager, provides for all of your soccerball needs. A chap might well dream of the simulated depth of a Sports Interactive management title married to the single player RPG career progression prospects of New Star Soccer. Then again, a chap might also dream of a time when a footballer wasn’t worthy of the kit unless he wore longjohns beneath, a flatcap on top and smoked a clay pipe at half time while supping a pint of Newcastle Brown.

There may have been something of a football drought since the heady days of SWOS, but the beautiful game will always be there, and it will always evolve and adapt. The only thing we can be sure of is that England will lose on penalties.

*1) retire before dying

Read this next