They used to be strictly for playground games but now everyone is collecting football stickers. Chris Bond takes a trip down memory lane.
FOR me it was the Heart of Midlothian badge.That small, rectangular piece of foil was the final piece of the jigsaw, the last sticker to complete my 1984-85 Panini album.
For weeks I’d slowly, through dogged persistence and a fledgling poker face, reduced my last 10 “needs” down to just one, the wretched and elusive Hearts badge.
It might sound a tad over the top but for a football-mad 11 year-old it was proving to be my Everest.
As anyone who’s ever collected a football sticker album will tell you, there’s always a couple of players, the dreaded duplicates, whose faces seem to greet you every time you opened a packet.
So while I had oodles of Phil Neals and Steve Hodges and I’m sure I could have filled half the album with Peter Shilton and Mal Donaghy, I couldn’t find that Hearts badge for love nor money.
That was until one lunchtime in the playground when a classmate produced a wad of swaps. Up to this point he hadn’t been one of the gang who met up each break time to flick through each other’s unwanted stickers, but he, too, was now on the home straight and had come out of the woodwork to try and complete his set.
He had hundreds of swaps and halfway through them I spotted the badge. In the past I would have given the game away (the previous year I’d failed miserably to complete my album), but instead I slowly went through the whole lot picking out half a dozen I didn’t need and then going back for the badge after a deliberate spot of umming and arring.
Thankfully, he needed a couple of my swaps and the deal was done and my album was complete.
You don’t win a prize you and you don’t get any money, you just get that feeling of satisfaction from having seen something through to the end.
I mention all this because with the start of the World Cup in Brazil just over a month away there’s been a flurry of interest as those age-old chants “Got, got, need!” rise up again in playgrounds up and down the country.
It takes me back to the 1986 World Cup when, flush from my success the previous year, I started collecting stickers of stars like Michel Platini, Michael Laudrup and, of course, Maradona, along with a string of mullet-haired Eastern bloc defenders.
There was the weekly ritual of using your pocket money to pop into your local newsagents to buy as many packets as you could afford (they’re now 50 pence for a packet of five stickers).
But of all my memories of watching that mesmerising World Cup at home on TV and all the abundant excitement that came with it, one of my abiding recollections is of my then eight-year-old brother shouting excitedly “Polska team, Polska team” (his poker face skills still needed polishing) as he spotted that I had the Poland team photo.
As any good older brother would do I gave it to him ... eventually, once he’d handed over 30 of his swaps.
It’s 44 years since Panini launched its first World Cup edition and in the intervening decades these glossy stickers have become loved by football fans all over the world.
Like the beautiful game itself they transcend borders and languages and you can guarantee whether it’s a playground in Amsterdam and Athens or Beeston and West Park, children be busy exchanging stickers.
As with football itself these albums have become big business, although interestingly it’s no longer just schoolchildren who are buying the stickers, a growing number of adult are, too - including a few in our newsroom.
Mark Westgarth, lecturer in art history and museum studies at the University of Leeds, says it ties in with our childhood memories. “It’s all wrapped up in nostalgia and a sense of our own past,” he says.
“The generations are getting younger and we have increasing connections with our childhood.”
Dr Westgarth believes there’s the appeal in a general sense of collecting a series. “There’s something about completing a set, whether it’s football stickers or coins that people find enjoyable.”
The idea of collecting something, whether it’s stamps or cigarette cards, is often viewed as a solitary activity, but certainly when it comes to football stickers it’s actually quite a social thing.
“Collecting tends to be viewed as something you do on your own but it’s also very sociable, in terms of football stickers you have swaps so it’s actually a bit like being part of a club.”
Mark Jensen, editor of the Newcastle United fanzine themag.co.uk, used to collect stickers as a youngster and now watches his 10 year-old son going through the same rigmarole.
“There’s that whole excitement of getting a pack and opening it and not knowing what you’re going to get. It’s fun but at the same time as you fill the album up it gets harder and it becomes more intense, it’s almost addictive.”
So even today in our increasingly digitised world collecting football stickers still has that allure.
“It’s one of those enduring things, there’s something timeless and also quite innocent about it. My kid’s got an ipad but collecting stickers is something that allows a bit of interaction and it’s something parents can do with their children,” he says.
“When I look back at my own childhood it was something all my mates did and it became a bit of a competition to see who could be the first to fill their sticker album.”
Jensen says the only thing that’s really changed is that youngsters today are more knowledgeable about the players. “When I was young you didn’t know who most the foreign players were, apart from the really big stars. But today we’re used to seeing players from abroad and the kids recognise most of them.”
But while the names and hairstyles may have changed the basic idea hasn’t and there’s always a couple of stickers that seem impossible to get hold of.
“I remember it was back in 1977 or 78 and everybody I knew seemed to need the Newcastle United team picture, no one had it,” says Jensen.
“Then the kid brother of one of my friends opened a pack and there it was. But my mate needed it and he chased his brother down the street and grabbed it off him, only it turned out to be the West Brom team.”
I don’t have my old sticker albums any more, they got lost in house moves or ended up in bin bags thrown out while I was away at university. But I might just go and get myself this year’s World Cup album and fill it one more time, you know for old time’s sake.
HAPPY MEMORIES OF THOSE CHILDHOOD YEARS
The football sticker obsession is global - collectors in Rio de Janeiro went into meltdown last month when a van carrying hundreds of thousands of Panini stickers was stolen during a delivery.
Thieves made off with some 300,000 of the collectables, featuring players who will appear in the World Cup finals in Brazil which start next month, as they were being taken to newsagents in the city.
However, Panini were quick to ward off panic among fans hoping to complete the collection of all 640 stickers, insisting supplies of Cristiano Ronaldos, Lionel Messis and Neymars were not running low.
The Panini Group, based in Italy, is now the world leader in the trading cards and stickers market.
It was founded in 1961, but did not enter the fray in the UK until 1978.
It was the era of the football card, featuring footballers with perms and short shorts. They were sold at newsagents, usually alongside a stick of bubblegum, and swapped and sold in the playground. The stickers finally overtook the cards in the 1980s.
One Leeds enthusiast explained the attraction like this: “There is the anticipation of opening the packet, the swaps with friends, the dogged determination to fill in the book.
“The smell of the stickers stays with you and evokes happy memories of childhood.
“I want to pass on the passion for stickers to the next generation so my son, who is eight, helps open the packs and stick them in.”
As an example of cost, the Panini 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil Sticker Album requires 640 stickers to fill it. Packs of five cost 50p so to fill the book costs £64, not taking into account any duplicates.