Panini World Cup 2018 football stickers: inside Hong Kong’s scene of hard core album collectors

Frantic search for 670 stickers brings back fond childhood memories in bid to complete album for Russia tournament

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 14 June, 2018, 8:01am
UPDATED : Thursday, 14 June, 2018, 10:15pm

Carrying a cardboard box full of hundreds of spare Panini World Cup 2018 stickers, I strode purposefully towards a group of 30 or so people hunkered down in a corner of the canteen at City University in Kowloon Tong.

Here sat Hong Kong’s most hard core Panini sticker collectors, some of whom have been meeting since the 2006 World Cup to swap, buy and sell stickers so they can all fill up their albums.

I was here for the same reason – a month out from the tournament, which kicks off today in Russia, I decided to give in to the nostalgia of my youth and start my first football sticker collection since I was a teenager, hoping to finish it before the tournament got underway.

Now aged 30, I felt a little bit more embarrassed spending HK$1,850 at 7-Eleven on six boxes of stickers, each of which contained 50 packets, or 250 stickers each.

“Six boxes? Are you crazy?” one collector in the canteen said. Indeed, had I done my research a little bit earlier and found their Facebook group earlier than last weekend, I could have been swapping away weeks ago and saved myself a lot of cash.

I did manage to recoup about HK$100 by selling a few spares for up to HK$10 each, which was a small crumb of comfort.

But over the space of four hours on a Saturday afternoon, I waded through people’s meticulously-kept piles of stickers to try and find the 85 extras I needed to fill my book.

In doing so, I found a group of like-minded guys and girls all getting kicks out of what many would deem a laborious and pointless process.

“Our Facebook group was only around 10 people in the beginning in 2006, but now we’ve already moved to over 2,000 people,” Darwin Chiu, the event’s organiser, said.

Chiu, 41, has been collecting Panini albums for the last 32 years since the 1986 Mexico World Cup.

“When I was a kid I loved watching football matches with my father,” he said. “I saw the 1986 Panini album at a newspaper stall and it looked very interesting. I collected the stickers and changed them with my colleagues.”

He had brought three of his completed World Cup albums – kept in mint condition in plastic cases – along to the meeting.

“I would have brought them all but it would be too heavy,” Chiu said, laughing.

Sidney Chan, 44 has also been collecting since 1986, but completing that one was a bit less difficult compared to finding the 670 stickers needed for the 2018 album.

“The 1986 World Cup album is only 100 stickers or something, so it’s easy,” he said.

To my chagrin, Chan also said it only cost him around HK$900 to complete his 2018 album.

“I’ve been doing this since I was a kid, it’s still fun. When I was in high school we used to swap stickers there, now we have a WhatsApp group and we chitchat to each other.”

Charles Tse, 30, has been collecting Panini albums since the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

“This is my third World Cup, I do the European Championship and Copa America albums too,” he said. “It’s fun to keep a record and see your progress for each team. It’s good memories.

“Many of the friends, we meet each other every two years. You see plenty of familiar faces every time you come out again. It’s a great atmosphere.”

Another collector, Jacky Fong, left the meeting early to go and collect his kids from school, before coming back to trade more stickers.

The 42-year-old is on his second World Cup sticker album, but this time his sons Nic, four, and Jayden, eight, are helping him.

“It’s a family event, collecting stickers – they are like my secretaries, they do all the work!” Fong said of his children. “They recognise all the players’ faces and know which ones we have and which ones we don’t have.

“I can also teach them about the different countries. It’s very fun for them and now they’ve got more interest in football. They now have their own favourite teams after collecting the stickers.”

I may have narrowly failed to complete my collection that day – if anyone has a spare No 143, Medhi Benatia of Morocco, please drop by the South China Morning Post’s office in Times Square – but I realised that wasn’t the point.

Looking at the expressions of wonder on the two young children’s faces as they peeled the backs off of stickers and placed them in their album, I was taken back to sitting on the floor filling my World Cup USA 1994 album as a seven-year-old.

I barely filled half of that one, but the journey was no less joyful.