Football Stickers And The Child Within

WORDS: BRYAN DAVIES

The way we interact with the game evolves, yet stickers remain constant, a throwback to bygone eras of simpler pleasures. In a world of instant gratification, the slow-paced, basic charm of sticker collecting is to be treasured because the football obsessive within us never fully grows up…

Panini

In the midst of a joyous and playfully chaotic World Cup, the global love affair with Panini’s official sticker collection continues apace.

Small boys and girls, and much bigger boys and girls, in every corner of the planet are gleefully “got-got-needing” towards the ultimate glory: the 640th and last piece of sticky-backed paper to lovingly, delicately place in their albums.

My own quest for immortality began with Uruguay, Mamadou Sakho, Riccardo Montolivo, Aleksandr Kokorin and the Swiss shiny. The teams and the players and the crests and the half-built stadia quickly become very familiar. Some more familiar than others, some irritatingly ubiquitous. Four packets in, Kokorin became my first double, and he appeared again before I had a duplicate of anyone or anything else. I vowed to follow the Dynamo Moscow forward particularly closely, seeing as he was stalking me around the newsagents of south London.

Why do we get sucked in? Many question the rationality of fully-grown adults partaking in a quintessentially childish pastime, but it’s about plenty more than mere stickers: it’s about tradition, nostalgia and joining in with a wider conversation. It’s football and it’s the World Cup.

As football fans, we don’t simply play and watch. We grow up augmenting our love of the game with whatever we can lay our hands on. We collect things, buy things, read things, watch things, listen to things. All football. As the game grows and coverage expands, discussion prolongs and words multiply, we go with it. The way we interact with the game evolves, yet stickers remain constant, a throwback to bygone eras of simpler pleasures. In a world of instant gratification, the slow-paced, basic charm of sticker collecting is to be treasured.

The football obsessive within us never fully grows up. The visceral joy and agony of football emits extreme, child-like explosions of emotion. It’s why we sulk after defeats, and partly why so many are drawn to tribal volatility for 90 minutes once a week. It’s partly why much of what passes for terrace wit is disappointingly base. On a broader level, it’s also why so many elite footballers are derided for being thick, when in reality it’s more a case of being emotionally and intellectually stunted, given the gilded bubble in which they are developed, denied the chance to grow and explore the world and themselves in a more organic and everyman fashion.

Thus, surely it’s no great surprise that such adults collect stickers? The smell of the stickers and the albums; the feeling of ripping open yet another packet; carefully filling the designated slots, desperately trying to avoid air bubbles or inserting stickers on the wonk. The art and process of sticker collection instantly transports you back to your ripped-trousered, scabby-kneed school yard days, where you’d take time out from a breathless 37-a-side game to dig out your enormous swap pile and trade and yearn with fierce determination.

‘Got, got, need'; ‘got, got, not got’. The language may ever so slightly vary, geographically, but the quest and the pleasure has no borders or boundaries. The focus is absolute and the end goal consistent. When you are in desperate need of Ruel Fox, you’ll go to great lengths. 35 stickers plus the Arsenal shiny for the diminutive wide man? Of course. Doubles are a skewed currency, an early lesson in supply and demand and captive markets.

Panini close up

The talk is of Panini, but in my primary school days it was all about Merlin’s Premier League offerings, with World Cup albums given fairly short shrift. 1995 was a particularly vintage year, with revolutionary 3D images accompanying the genre staple mug shots. Stuart Nethercott may have been a Kokorin forbear, but that didn’t put me off ritualistically parting with my pocket money, and I saw the task through to its glorious end. Completing that collection made me the man I am today. Oh.

Before Merlin, there had been the influential Pro Set trading cards (not quite completed) – high quality and informative, painstakingly housed in plastic wallets within a robust white ring binder. It remains a treasured item, revisited sporadically. There were also football cards within packets of candy sticks, resemblant of old cigarette football cards and largely found at primary school discos where, mostly, girls would stick with girls and dance, and boys would stick with boys at the back of the hall and trade cards and play-fight and drink sugary squash.

During and after Merlin came stickers for the Endsleigh League and England (who continue to plough their own furrow, leaving their Panini pages unlicensed and amateur looking), Premier League Pogs, Sainsbury’s World Cup 1998 coins in the mould of the Esso classics (completed), Corinthian Prostars figures (bloody loads of them), and even Kellogg’s Euro 96 virtual video screens (completed, I think), back in the days when you would get decent gifts in cereal packets. There was some other stuff too, but it was largely football, a ceaseless passion obligingly served by astute marketeers.

Having begun with Mexico 1970, the Panini World Cup cult has grown steadily, but it has stepped up a gear in 2014; stickers have surely never attracted such discussion and commentary. Many collectors, some getting involved for the first time since adolescence, have been aided with the online trading platform of social media, using this new avenue to swap efficiently and anonymously. Purists aren’t so keen, and whilst risks are attached in taking an activity online, for the most part it appears to be a healthy accompaniment to the still traditional method of swapping. The trade floor is no longer exclusively the playground. That still thrives, but now pubs have swap boxes and parents arrange coffee mornings to swap on behalf of their darlings. There are apps and there is digital content but the stickers remain, by their very nature, distinctly old school and physical, and that’s the point.

The sticker hype reflects the tournament itself. Never before has a tournament been previewed, covered and reviewed in such detail. The coverage is exhaustive, and whilst much of that is simply reflective of a developing world of breathless technological advances and micro-analytics, there is more to it – it’s a World Cup in Brazil, and that is difficult to top, given the country’s spiritual and creative place within the game.

ProSet

There is also the spectre of Russia and Qatar. For a multitude of reasons (literally millions, in some cases), neither country should be hosting a World Cup, and it appears that people are fully embracing Brazil 2014 precisely because the next two tournaments look distinctly unappealing right now. Whether traveling fans or pub dwellers, many see this World Cup as the last one which they will be fully able to buy into until 2026 at the earliest.

Wherever the World Cup is held, for me and surely millions of others, a love and enjoyment of the tournament is very much in spite of FIFA and their traveling corporate circus. Whatever the financial rights and wrongs of Brazil’s hosting, it is a blessing that there is a local stamp on the tournament; a distinct regional flavour undermining FIFA’s vision of safe, stifling, homogenised exhibitions primarily benefitting stakeholders and HD audiences.

The finest tournaments and events, with London 2012 a magnificent recent example, are coloured not just by world class sporting achievement but also a specific identity, style and spirit, and Brazil has provided on that front. Violent protests aren’t to be celebrated, but they do capture the zeitgeist, off-message from FIFA’s scripted desires. There are infrastructure problems, the stadia are not perfect, but, purely in the context of this World Cup, that’s absolutely fine, oddly necessary almost.

It has all been reflected in what has been, to date, a truly wonderful tournament (we’re all ignoring Iran-Nigeria, yeah?), a fitting celebration of what the football world has to offer. There is still a long road ahead, and lots of football to be played, but thus far it has been a classic, shaped by neglectful defending and attacking, proactive sides. Many of the competing nations are putting their unique spin on a specific, high-energy tactical moment, having reacted to sides who bully with possession, and consequently the quality of the counter-attacking has been breathtaking. The orgy of quality matches is manna from heaven for supporters, akin to gorging daily on a DVD box set rather than patiently waiting for a new episode every week. If the tournament continues to dazzle, Panini will continue to make hay.

As the tournament progresses, the grinning, gurning players become etched in our mind palaces, if they weren’t already – one area where sticker collecting has lost some sheen is simply the fact that very few of the players are unknown to regular football watchers. Such is the globalised nature of the sport, the faces and haircuts of the majority are instantly recognisable – players travel and play in far greater numbers and with far broader horizons than once was the case, and we watch so much football, from everywhere, that undiscovered gems or untapped markets are rare.

Nethercott

Before football’s revolution was televised, there was little TV coverage, and many of the game’s finest players were practically unknown to oversees fans until Panini and the World Cup came around. Stickers presented punters with a cast of moustachioed, mullet-wielding strangers who would become firm friends over the course of a tournament. There will always be a few players from the weakest, smallest teams who leave us head-scratching, but that number dwindles with every four-year cycle. Consider that the lowest-ranked nation at the World Cup, Australia, is captained by a Premier League skipper.

It’s a relatively minor blemish, though. There is still the excitement of starting your collection months ahead of the tournament, building your portfolio whilst selecting your fantasy team and pinning up your wall chart. There is still the endless swapping and the thrill of the chase. Some players will always be harder to trace than others, as Joel Campbell and Mario Balotelli can attest.

Ultimately, sticker collecting requires perseverance and patience, and it speaks to individual characteristics. Short-termists and those easily distracted will always struggle, whilst the more indefatigable will invariably stick it out until the last, seeking the end result whatever the narrative of the journey.

It also requires money. Secondary school teacher Matthew Scroggs calculated that an average fan should expect to purchase 4,505 stickers in order to complete their collection, spending £413.24. However, that analysis excluded swapping stickers or ordering the final 50 direct from Panini (it’s not cheating, OK?). Factor in those elements and the total is likely to be around £133.99. It’s still a hefty sum which baffles non-believers, but as with everything, the overall cost is starker than the bite-size reality – if you calculated your total spend on coffee or beer, or newspapers and magazines, the figures would be eye-watering. Evidently, the more swapping opportunities you have, the more cash you’ll save. It’s a pursuit that rewards mass participation. This year’s collection has brought together old and young, rich and poor, blue and white collar. It brings together countries and cultures, just as the football in Brazil has been a beautiful smorgasbord of tactics, aesthetics and identities.

Historically, my album completion rate is mixed, but this is one collection I insist on conquering, such has been the exquisite quality of the tournament. Plus, collecting has simply been a lot of fun. Notwithstanding England’s disappointment, this looks like being a tournament for the ages, and therefore when I have my own 640th sticker, the finished album will provide me with a lifelong reminder of a magnificent summer of football. There will be plenty more Kokorins before I reach my destination, but it will have been well worth it. Now, has anyone got Sokratis Papastathopoulos?

Bryan Davies is also the author of this nostalgia-filled tribute to Roy Race, as well as this  fine One Love feature on the highs and lows of supporting Crystal Palace.
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