11.30 pm Monday, two weeks before the World Cup, London. In amidst the noise of grown men shouting at post-pub level a phone goes and photographer Matt Sankey listens to the question. As he does so he looks round the room and then replies “Er, I can’t really tell you what’s going on, I’ve come out with James to take some photographs. I’ll call you tomorrow.” And that was the last time anyone spoke to anyone normal in the outside world before we finished the Panini World Cup sticker book four hours later. That’s right a load of grown men, one sticker book 600 packets of stickers and a free Monday night. No reason. Just for the hell of it.
The evening had got off to a strange start, just as we were getting to know each other and were trying to decipher the printed sheet of what originally looked like some structure but quickly appeared to be irrelevant, Ben opened a packet and went ‘Hang on these aren’t stickers they’re cards!!” As we looked on in disbelief as Waitesy opened bag after bag to discover they’d bought 600 packs of the wrong product, Theo noted “Blimey it’s exactly like an episode of Only Fools and Horses.” And so the organisers Waites and Buels had to head off into the night and make a long number of local newsagents and supermarkets very rich.
We’d been at it for three hours in the pub and now we’d moved back to the offices of Hungry Man, a production company not a greedy bastard. There were peeled sticker wrappers all over the floor, hundreds of them, like an Autumnal fall of curling shiny white oblong leaves. The odd random sticker was stuck on the walls. The table was absolutely covered in a variety of hills and tiny neat piles of them. You Tube was blaring out the Greatest Hits of Sabotage Times, beers and crisps were being demolished and a cacophony of cries like “I’ve found Ponce!” “Who’s got Slovenia?” “Have we done the Swiss?” were competing with the slightly more sophisticated “do we need half of this stadia?”
As a study of human behaviour it was interesting. One man was peeling and sticking Ghana players onto the edge of the table. So when the book came to him he had the players sorted, the backs off and the stickers ready to stick in. It was careful considered work. Sensible. He had identified the best way to create a routine that would speed up the process. He was in a minority of one. The rest of us were shouting, swearing, drinking, sticking, grabbing, comparing, desperately searching for a lost Paraguayan. We were high on the joy of doing something totally and utterly nostalgic and juvenile.
And for a while I also saw us all how women sometimes see us. It was loud, pointless, obsessive, messy, childish and scarcely organised. We loved it.
In the midst of it a chap called Danny delivered a brilliant World Cup warm-up anecdote about how two mates of his had accidentally checked into England’s World Cup Hotel eight years ago by booking six months ahead and had the pleasure of spending the tournament playing table tennis with the likes of Scholes and Fowler & Co. This was delivered amidst the mass confusion that prevailed. The Eastern Europeans and the Koreans and the Swiss and the matching kits and the Yanks that look like goalkeepers and the players that look like mates. And always the drive for more. More packets, more players, more players needed, more to stick in. More teams to compete. On and on it went.
What the fuck was going on? Well as Matt said I can’t really tell you. Well actually I can tell you ‘What’ I just can’t tell you ‘Why’. I just received an email from a mate, Mark Waites, and showed up at a pub. It seemed like a good idea. I’d never been into Panini stickers as a kid. Instead I had a big pack of football cards wrapped tightly in a rubber band. They’d come with hard stick bubble gum and you could play flicking them against a wall, whoever was nearest or got them to stand up won. I can still remember the players: Billy Bremner, Mike Pejic, Charlie George. Brightly coloured close ups on stars in heavy shirts sporting orange curls, comb-overs and even afros. And the occasional long-shot of someone like Peter Lorimer or Kenny Dalglish playing for Scotland.
Fatherhood has however delivered an opportunity to relive childhood and so the Panini book before me was far from alien. My son has had a crack at two books and between major tournaments he collects Match Attax cards with gusto. That’s his mate, Gusto.
As we scrabbled good naturedly to rip open more and more packets like Roy Kinnear’s factory workers In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory I couldn’t help wonder what my son would make of this Panini Orgy. How he fiercely clutches his 50ps to run off to the newsagent to collect another pack. What would he make of the excess, the indulgence, the amount of French players that kept appearing. Would Messi and Torres and Rooney and the other world superstars he and his school friends adore and hold in high esteem have such rare value when there were five or six of them knocking round on a table. Or would they understand the increasing value in a missing player like Number 161 or 632. Because that’s what they became by the early hours of Tuesday morning. Just numbers on a long list in a bizarre game of World Cup Bingo. Four of us left, Matt Sankey, Matt Buels, Mark Waites and I. Opening packets, desperate for another number to scratch off the list. Totally aware that the ones we wanted probably wouldn’t be in the few remaining packets.
“I’ve found Ponce!” “Who’s got Slovenia?” “Have we done the Swiss?” were competing with the slightly more sophisticated “do we need half of this stadia?”
And finally we were forced TWICE to go through every single remaining pile of alleged doubles until we’d managed to fill the whole book. It was exhausting, it was addictive and like more experience it gave new insights. For a while I realised why the people on the Apprentice always fuck up the tasks. They are so keen to get started and show their worth and commitment no-one ever stops to examine how the work might be divided up to finish the project as quickly and easily as possible.
And for a while I also saw us all how women sometimes see us. It was loud, pointless, obsessive, messy, childish and scarcely organised. We loved it. We were positively thriving. It was typically male. Rarely has so much endeavour been created for anything other than profit or charity. What would we do with the book afterwards? Should we sign it? Should we sell it? Should we get players to sign it?
Fuck knows let’s go home. It’s 2.30. And try explaining it to the wife or girlfriend. “Yes, right till now 3am, we’ve been sticking stickers in a book.” It would have been easier to say we were out having affairs and taking drugs.
And to top it all after the strain, the relentless hunt for the last seven stickers and the overall excitement and relief when we’d finally finished, the next day we discovered there was another card. A second picture of the world cup, tucked away on the inside back cover that we hadn’t put in. So once again I had to plough through the bag of swaps I’d bought home for my son until he eventually found it and held it up in delight. Men of Panini we salute you.
Pictures by Matt Sankey of Propergander