(Reuters) - Hidden away down a drab side street in Milan’s gray suburbs, the little figures lined up in the dusty window of a local ceramic workshop add a welcome dash of a color on a chilly autumn day.
They are also something of a local attraction.
Children walking home from school drag their mothers on a detour to stop and stare, but the display really warms the heart of the older generation who grew up playing the football table game Subbuteo.
For nine years, since conceiving the idea as part of a project, ceramic artist Stefano Puzzo has been producing beautifully-crafted replicas of the tiny plastic Subbuteo characters that have been flicked around, and trodden on, in households across the world since the mid 1940s.
These ones, about 30cm in height including the round base, are not for flicking though.
Moulded in clay, hand-painted, glazed to a stunning high gloss finish, before spending two days at 1,000 degrees in the kiln, they are destined for a more sedentary existence on the coffee tables, cabinets and shelves of the rich and famous.
Former Italy Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has one sitting on his desk in the colors of his beloved AC Milan.
Chelsea’s Spanish striker Alvaro Morata had one made for him, as did Milan skipper Leonardo Bonucci and former Italy national manager Giovanni Trapattoni.
Former Brazil and Inter Milan striker Ronaldo’s piece is sitting on a shelf waiting to be packed and sent.
The list of customers is impressive, but one is a particular favorite of Puzzo’s.
“A few years ago a Brazilian customer said he wanted to have one made for Junior, the great Brazilian player,” he told Reuters in his workshop where freshly-made players were lined up in rows on shelves awaiting their paint jobs.
“He was a player I remember watching playing against Italy in the 1982 World Cup and reminds me so much of my youth,” he added showing a photo of Junior with his mini-me.
But what number did Berlusconi have on the back of his figure?
“It was ordered through a friend of Berlusconi for him as a present,” Stefano reveals.
“He did not want a number, he wanted the symbol for infinity! So it’s my fault!”
Stefano began working for the business founded by his parents, Michele and Liliana, after leaving college in the 1990s.
Michele is still very much hands on, while Sefano’s brother Rizzardo also works in the company which produces a large range of unique objects for specialist homeware companies.
While Stefano works with leading designers and architects to produce a range of one-off artworks, the Subbuteo pieces are his pride and joy – each character lovingly created by hand over a four-day process.
Most of the made-to-order figurines, costing 50 euros ($59), are painted in the colors of the world’s greatest football teams — especially the retro shirts of the 1960s and 1970s.
“There is a restaurant in Florence which is like a shrine to football and found out about me and wanted a set of the historical players,” Stefano said, holding Manchester United wizard-like number seven George Best in one hand and Dutch master Johan Cruyff in the other.
While each model comes out of the same mold — there is room for occasional innovation. “The Ruud Gullit one took a little extra work to get the dreadlocks right,” Stefano said.
There are a few surprising additions to the collection.
Music legends Michael Jackson and Freddie Mercury, cartoon cult character Homer Simpson and a full midfield of various Marvel Comic super-heroes have also been given the Subbuteo treatment — as has the notorious character Alex from the Stanley Kubrick’s classic movie A Clockwork Orange.
Stefano, a lifelong Milan fan, might not be getting too many requests for the current Azzuri squad though, after their failure to qualify for the World Cup.
Although he points out that when it comes to Subbuteo — Italy still rules. This month Bari Reggio Emilia won their third Subbuteo Champions League title in a row.
“It is still hugely popular in Italy and there are many tournaments ... and it’s taken very seriously,” Stefano said. “It’s just a shame about the real team.”
Reporting by Martyn Herman, editing by Pritha Sarkar