In just under two months’ time, the European Football Championships will commence in France.
Annoyingly, England have once again started to churn out some half-decent performances immediately prior to a major tournament (the recent 3-2 victory against our old foes and neighbours Germany in particular), which invariably means that the English media will now go into a frenzy about our chances of doing really well at the tournament. This, of course, is a waste of time, since every sane football fan knows that England will either fail to qualify from the group, or we will lose on penalties in the quarter-finals, following a dodgy refereeing decision in normal time. We are England, after all, and those are our only two options.
This might sound like me being cynical and pessimistic (that’s because it is), but even though I am certain England will again disappoint the nation, I now have a renewed interest in international football – thanks in no small part to my eldest son, Ollie.
Ollie will turn six in a few weeks, which, for the mathematicians amongst you, means he was four when England played at the World Cup in Brazil two years ago. As expected, England were shit and didn’t qualify from the group stage, but that didn’t deter young Ollie, who continued to enthuse about the whole tournament right up until the final. True, this was partly because he was obsessed with learning about the national flags of each country, and partly because it was an excuse not to go to bed, but there was another reason he was so taken with Brazil 2014 – his Panini sticker book.
In a clever marketing ploy, the sticker books were given away free in shops and supermarkets throughout the land, with their glossy, colourful covers often displayed on stands at checkouts. Panini, despite being named after a flat toasted sandwich, are obviously no fools, and they realised that checkouts are the one place where children become hell-bent on grabbing anything they possibly can, as a last ditch attempt to be treated before leaving a store.
If Panini could give away as many sticker books as possible (and which reasonable parent would refuse their pleading child a free book?), then they could continue to sell packets of stickers – at 50p a go – in their millions. You know when drug dealers give potential junkies their first hit for free, in order to get them addicted? Yeah, it was like that.
The nation, in short, went sticker mental. And it wasn’t just the children, either. Grown men and women were obsessed with completing their books, even though it cost hundreds of pounds to do so. ‘Swap-meets’ were organised up and down the country, so that people could get together to do ‘swapsies’ with each other, in a bid to grasp the last few players they needed to triumphantly fill their books.
It was all rather sad when you think about it. And I bloody loved it.
You see, I never really got into sticker books as a kid, so although I loved collecting things, the world of Panini largely passed me by. I remember (very fondly) collecting little wooden American Football shirt key-rings with my friends at Primary School, then swapping any duplicates in the playground. They cost 10p from the ‘ice cream man’ (as far as I know, the same guy still visits the street where I grew up, even though he must now be well into his seventies), and for that you would also get a delicious bubble-gum. That’s value right there, kids.
I recall that everyone, and I do mean everyone, desperately wanted the Miami Dolphins key-ring, as they were the team of the late 1990s. In a moment of child-like impetuousness (well, I was a child), I ended up trading my pristine – and from memory, quite rare – San Diego Chargers key-ring, for a (rather tatty in comparison) Miami Dolphins one, and quickly realised what a fool I had been. I would have been eight or nine then, and I don’t think I have ever got over the bitter regret of that decision.
Shit, I’m welling up here just thinking about it.
Anyway, I digress. Ollie got his World Cup sticker book, and we began to purchase packets of stickers for him every time he was particularly well-behaved. None of his friends seemed to be collecting them, so he ended up trading swaps with my brother-in-law and my sister-in-law’s husband (which is not, before you ask, an extremely convoluted way of saying ‘my brother’).
Still, despite being able to trade little bits of sticky paper with two grown men who, at that stage at least, had no children of their own (not that they now have children together, you understand), Ollie was still some distance from completing his book. In desperation, I began to relax what I considered to be ‘good behaviour’, in order to justify buying more packs for him. It began gradually, with rewards for little things like ‘not wetting the bed’ (even though he had only done this perhaps once in the previous year), but as my desire and greed became more fervent, I started to get desperate:
“Ollie, you’ve been screaming for an hour now, and really shouldn’t have launched your dinner across the kitchen in temper, but at least you managed to miss mummy. That’s good enough, get your shoes on and we’ll go to the shop.”
I’m not proud of myself, but I needed a fix. You wouldn’t understand, unless they got to you too.
Then, on one glorious sunny afternoon in early June 2014, I took Ollie into town in order to give my wife some time alone with Isaac – who was only a few weeks old, and recently home from his extended stint in hospital.
We bought a few packets of stickers, and went to sit outside one of my favourite Sandbachian pubs to work our way through them. As I nipped inside to get a beer, we met one of the girls who looked after Ollie at nursery, and she spotted the sticker book he was proudly clutching under his arm. It turned out that her boyfriend, who was working behind the bar at the time, was also collecting the stickers, but had ‘a few swaps’ if Ollie fancied sifting through them. I think I responded with a little too much enthusiasm, and certainly before Ollie had any chance to speak.
She went upstairs in the pub, and returned a short while later with a large Tupperware container filled to the brim with stickers. There were hundreds of them. I was so excited, I believe I went a little light-headed, and may very well have wet myself slightly. Anyway, I bought my beer (and a blackcurrant squash for Ollie) and we sat outside in the sunshine to go through the box. Needless to say, there were so many stickers, I had to purchase more beer in order to justify remaining at the pub for what, ultimately, turned out to be a few blissful hours of peeling and sticking.
I remember – like it was yesterday – punching the air with unbridled joy, because we had finally collected Ivory Coast’s goalkeeper, Boubacar Barry.
Surely the greatest name in world football, ever.
Having informed my wife that Ollie and I would go into town for ‘an hour or so’, she was understandably a little narked when we arrived back several hours later. To make matters worse, I was not only sunburnt, but also well on my way to inebriation and, consequently, grinning like a fucking imbecile. In my drunken state, I could not for the life of me understand why she didn’t share my excitement about Boubacar Barry. “But… but… his name sounds a bit like boobs! Or a car full of boobs! And just look at his FACE!”
She wasn’t at all impressed. It was totally worth it though.
Eventually, thanks to that monumental sticker haul at the pub, and some further swapsies with the brothers-in-law (why didn’t I just call them that in the first place?), Ollie got within a handful of players of completing his book, so we filled out the little form and sent it off to Panini. A few weeks later, the last few arrived and ‘his’ book was full. I’m not saying it is the greatest achievement of my life, but it’s certainly top five.
Of course, as any sticker collector will know, in order to fill one of these books, you invariably end up with hundreds of swaps, which become entirely useless as soon as the tournament is over. For some inexplicable reason, we still have them, and we apparently collected twelve of whoever-the-fuck this ugly Croat is:
So, when the latest Panini book for the forthcoming Euros was released a few weeks ago, I didn’t take a great deal of persuading from Ollie to once again embark on the costly exercise of trying to fill the damn thing. My reasoning, if you can call it such, was that the European Championships are a smaller affair than the World Cup (for any non-geographers out there, Europe is smaller than the World) so, assuming squad sizes remain more-or-less constant, there should be less stickers to collect, right?
Panini, devious bastards that they are, have somehow managed to make the book bigger, by including not only the usual team photos and squads, but also various additions. We’ve only just started the book, so I don’t know who some of these people are, but I would not be at all surprised to find we are also now collecting stickers of singers, prominent politicians and landmarks from each country too.
Still, we have only bought ten packets of stickers so far, so we are still at the glorious stage of having just the one swapsie (screw you, Zlatan Ibrahimovic) and I guess it’s all downhill from now on. Over the coming months, I will most likely destroy a large chunk of Ollie’s University fund, by purchasing endless packets of stickers to feed my recurring addiction. Oh well, father-son bonding is ultimately more important than education anyway.
Besides, it’ll help to take Ollie’s mind off things, when England inevitably screw up.