For some, the countdown to the World Cup started when Brazil was named as the host country seven years ago; for others, it started when Uruguay and Mexico became the last two teams to qualify. For me, it started at the same moment as every previous World Cup since 1970: with the arrival of the Panini World Cup sticker album.
It’s a symbolic moment. A ritual, even. First check the England squad, assuming we’ve qualified: Panini have to pick their teams long before the managers, and there’s often one or two who won’t make the plane. The ones who don’t will go on to become minor celebs in my Panini-world. Ashley Cole and Andros Townsend look likely candidates this year. Then home to get the first stickers in place. The album comes with a starter pack of 31 stickers, but I usually top it up straight away with an extra five or six packs to stop it looking too empty. Then another five or six…
Filling a Panini album has become progressively more expensive since the 1970s. Not just because there are more teams competing now, but because Panini have become more creative about allocating spaces. In the early years, some countries were allocated fewer spaces. In 1970, the bigger teams got 14 slots for individual players while the smaller ones got 10; for Munich 1974, Australia had to make do with seven. Presumably that’s all the Aussie footballers Panini could name. Unless they played 7 v 11. No wonder they never made it to the knockout stage.
Now each of the 24 countries gets 19 slots (17 individual mugshots, a group photo and a badge), along with a load of pages devoted to stickers of the trophy, a football, various World Cup logos, a Fifa fair play badge, a Panini logo and all the various stadiums at which games are being played. Obviously, these stadiums are so large they take up two stickers each. Which is another way of saying that while the 1970 album had about 250 stickers, the 2014 one has 639.
Were you to strike lucky and get packs with no duplicates, it would cost you £63.90 to fill the album. Except that doesn’t happen. By the time your album is about two-thirds full, you will have a drawer full of swaps. Which you can’t always swap even if you are in daily contact with other collectors, because they will invariably be looking for the same stickers as you. Panini insist – I’ve asked them – there is an even distribution of all stickers, but my own experience of more than 40 years suggests otherwise. For the 2010 World Cup, no one I knew had seen a Danny Shittu. Many of us wondered whether it actually existed. I ended up paying rather too much for one on eBay.
I sense I might be losing some of you here. That’s the nature of obsessions. Those who don’t suffer from them find them mystifying; childish, even. For those of us who do, they can be all-consuming. I tried to get my son involved for the 2006 World Cup in Germany. He was 10 then and I reckoned he was old enough to be interested in football. We had an album each and divvied up the sticker packs between us. Then I blew it by suggesting – politely – that he was putting the stickers in crooked and then insisting I had first dibs on all swaps. I couldn’t help myself. Long before the tournament had started, he had abandoned his album. At least thereafter the stickers went in straight. I did buy him an album for the 2010 World Cup, but he never opened it. I haven’t bothered this time.
Obsessives sweat the small stuff; and things don’t get much more trivial than Panini. Between World Cups, I barely give my collection a thought. The albums lie unloved in their box. But with the arrival of a new album, out they come. I could argue they are a valuable football social history, documenting the fashions and hairstyles of the past 40 years, but that would be only a partial truth. Yes, there have been dodgy mullets and frighteningly short shorts, but that’s not what I see.
Here’s the thing about Panini. You can become fixated for days – weeks, even – about a particular sticker, ripping open each packet in the hope it appears. Then one day it’s there and, after a momentary feeling of exhilaration, there’s a flatness. You stick it in – neatly – and then it’s just another sticker. Then another unfound sticker becomes an object of desire. So what I see when I look at my albums aren’t the stickers, but the gaps. The failures. Thanks to eBay I’ve managed to fill almost all of them, but there are still five from 1970 I’m missing: Leão, Everaldo, Alan Ball, Francisco Castrejón and the Brazil team photo. These stickers are what first come to mind when I think Panini. I see what isn’t there.