Of course, not all figures created by toy makers were military. Britains are famous for their soldiers, but they also made farm workers, dancers, equestrians and hospital staff. Airfix had already produced several sets of figures for model railways in HO/OO scale. However, only a single set of non-military figures were made in 1:32 and these were footballers.
Now, pedants will note that, technically, they are not part of the Military Series, but the only set in a new Sports Series of figures. However, as no further sporting sets were created we’ll gloss over that distinction! After all, sport is, perhaps, somewhat similar to war. Both are competitive and physically demanding. As George Orwell said, sport is “war without the shooting” (not strictly correct, of course, as shooting is a sport – but we know what he meant). Football, as the most popular sport in the UK, was likely to be a popular subject for figures.
Team games involving moving a ball across the opposing goal-line had become popular during the mid-nineteenth century, but there were plenty of local variations and some basic disagreements over the rules. Out of these differing traditions and playing communities arose several distinct games including modern football and rugby. The first set of widely-accepted rules for the former were published in 1863 by the new Football Association.
Football rapidly became established and grew into an international sport. The English Football League was founded in 1888, and in 1904 FIFA was created to govern international competition. In 1930, the first World Cup took place. Of particular interest to this set of figures, it should be noted that in 1966 England won the World Cup for the first and only time, beating West Germany in the final. Four years later at the next World Cup, West Germany gained their revenge by knocking England out in the quarter-finals.
The Airfix Footballers
Year first produced:1971
L68xW22xH60 (max), Plastic 3g (av), Scale 1:32, Features: 0
Let’s begin our review with the box, which is a standard full-size box made to contain the usual ‘29 scale pieces’ and illustrated on the front with an action picture. However, the base colour of the box is green rather than the usual brown, and where we might expect to see ‘Military Series’ we find instead ‘Sports Series’. As mentioned above, there were no further releases in the series, so the set is a singleton.
On the back of the box, the colours of 8 international teams are illustrated for those who would to paint the figures, and there is a checklist of the box contents:
- 22 Players
- 2 Substitutes
- 2 Linesmen
- 2 Trainers
- 1 Referee
- 2 Footballs
This makes a total of 31 pieces, so the footballs were obviously thrown in as extras!
The figures are modelled in cream polythene. The players are in a variety of action poses, and are of course sufficient to make two teams, though setting them all out in one diorama would be problematical as there are clearly two groups of figures involved in goal-mouth scrambles! For example, amongst the more energetic figures, there are two different poses for a goalkeeper, both athletically stretching to save a shot.
There are eight player poses in all, ranging from the relatively static to all-out action. All are well-sculpted, and particularly well-modelled giving a good impression of having been captured in the midst of sometimes strenuous motion, and thus temporarily unbalanced. In fact, the goalie diving to stop a low shot to his right is a bit of a masterpiece in this regard. He is offset to the left side of the base and attached by the side of his boot, while his body gracefully leaps to his right. The resulting figure manages to balance perfectly!
The shot he is trying to save quite obviously comes from the only pose kicking the ball, who reminds me not a little of Roy of the Rovers. Clearly the shot is a rocket, and the defenders vainly try to block it. Hmm, methinks that nowadays those defenders would have to pay more attention to their flailing arms, in case they unintentionally commit a handball!
There isn’t an obvious pose for the substitutes mentioned on the box, as all eight player poses are clearly stripped for action, so presumably one is supposed to imagine them standing nervously on the edge of the field waiting to come on, or perhaps warming up.
The match officials are represented by a pointing referee, whistle in hand, and two linesmen with their flags. The trainers are great character pieces, with their zip-up jackets and medics’ bag, shouting instructions to the players from the touch lines.
Overall, I think this is a great set of figures, well-made and full of vigour. One thing that did strike me quite forcibly is how they are all – including the non-players – of the same height and stature. Real footballers come in a variety of (athletic) shapes and sizes…
Black and white illustrations best show the quality of the sculpting. They are full of character!
1966 or 1970?
So, can we establish a link between this figure set, released in 1971, and the World Cups of 1966 and 1970? Airfix did not claim any date or nationality for the figures, but it would be foolish not to imagine that the potential buyers in England (and Germany, for that matter) would have the recent World Cups on their minds.
The figures themselves are of course unpainted, and carry no sculpted insignia, so could be painted to represent any national or club team. I don’t think any of them intentionally represent a real player – as already noted they are of a uniform stature, with a full head of hair (no Charlton brothers here!) and facially similar despite some subtle variations in hairstyle.
The clothing on the figures looks right for the 1960s and early 1970s, with a fairly tight fit and elasticated shorts, and they have short hair. The figures do have prominent sideburns and there is the occasional hint of something more bouffant than a short-back-and-sides, which might suggest 1970 rather than 1966, but that’s about it.
There is one final suggestive detail, however. Balls! The tiny footballs in the set clearly carry the roughly rectangular panels that distinguished the Slazenger Challenger 4-star, as used in the 1966 World Cup. In the 1970 World Cup, on the other hand, an innovative black-and-white hexagon patterned ball (the Adidas Telstar) made its debut – and this is obviously not the ball modelled.
Judging by the colour scheme and badges of the strips worn, the box illustration shows England playing West Germany. In the 1966 final the German team actually wore short sleeves, and in 1970 both teams wore them, but this doesn’t undermine the connection being made. And returning for a last time to balls, the box illustration does not show any texture on the football, but it is brown and so strongly suggestive of 1966.
So, there we have it. Regardless of any precise dating attempts, by waiting until 1971 to make the football set, Airfix left themselves open to missing the bus. Imagine the interest if the release had been timed with the build-up to the 1970 World Cup, rather than the set appearing in the somewhat dismal aftermath. Oh well. I’m holding onto my set for when England next win the World Cup in Qatar 2022 – you read it first here 😉.
The footballers were the only set of sportsmen that Airfix created. In fact, they were the only set of non-military figures. The more unusual military subjects created included 51474 Medieval Foot Soldiers (complete with siege ladder, climber and defender preparing to drop a huge boulder on him!), the very retro-fashioned 51577 Space Warriors and the then bang up-to-date 9-51578 SAS (Special Air Service).