Friday, April 27, 2018


The World Cup starts in 48 days and my son and I are tearing through two packs of Panini stickers a day to fill up our book by kickoff.

  • FIFA’s $25 billion “emergency.”
  • Arsene Wenger’s Africa connection.
  • Fox Sports adopts an American accent.

It’s 1986 and I’m 11 years old again.

We had a deal. After school, or when I got home from work, my 7-year-old son Miles and I would open two packs of Panini World Cup stickers together.  

He never waits for me. But I can’t be too upset because I’d be just as impatient.

Since the Panini 2018 FIFA World Cup Sticker Collection album arrived in the mail with our recent order, I’ve been behaving like I’m 11. That’s how old I was when I first discovered Panini’s 1986 World Cup stickers.

The kitschy album is really more of a magazine, with pages for each team and spots for players’ mugshots. The pulpy, peel-off stickers come five in a pack, like trading cards.

They’re made by the Panini company of Modena, Italy, as they have been since the 1970 World Cup in Mexico. The company was started by two brothers, Giuseppe and Benito Panini, who had a newspaper distribution company but got into the sticker business on a lark in 1961.

Every four years, a new World Cup book is printed and stickers are spread around the world for kids, their parents and even the players to obsess over in the weeks before the tournament. 

The closest I think I came to filling a book was 1990, the last year the Soviet Union played. My grandfather gave my brothers and me several packs of stickers from the candy, tobacco and trading-card wholesaler where he worked.

This year it takes 681 stickers to complete the collection, and my son and I have a way to go. The most players we have from one team is three (Panama and England). Miles is convinced the team we complete first is likely to win the World Cup. I want to tell him it doesn’t work that way, but it might.

There are a few ways to get the stickers: You can buy packs from stores or online. The suggested retail prices is $1, but as the tournament nears and inventory dwindles, some shops may charge more.

Bloomberg reported that prices vary in the 120 countries where the stickers are sold.  They’re most expensive in Switzerland, and cheapest in Brazil. Panini has a printing operation there, and sells more stickers in Brazil than anywhere else.

Panini America sells stickers on its website, and has a special online store where you can buy individual players you’re missing for 25 cents each. The whole thing can get expensive.

A professor in Cardiff, Wales, recently estimated it would cost more than £773, or $1,075, to complete the set.  A couple in Oxford, England, thought that was absurd and decided to draw their own stickers. They share them on Twitter @CheapPanini. The drawings are awful and I love them.

Kids — and their parents — can also trade. I have my son canvassing his elementary school to find families who want to exchange “swapsies.”

Panini has an app now too, for iOS and Android, which is slick. But it’s not tactile, and neither Miles nor I need more screen time.

The stickers are a shared experience, just like the World Cup: We’re collecting the same ones as families in Australia, Belgium and Cameroon. The books are the same too, save for a few ad pages. There is little text, and what words there are appear in 10 languages. Panini may consider adding Arabic for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.

Some collectors keep their books in hermetically sealed sleeves. Not us. The corners of our book are already worn, and some pages are stained with spots of pizza grease. You can see the small smudges Miles left handling the England pages, and my bigger fingerprints are all over Germany.

My son brings the book to school, to show off. He was excited to get Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo and France’s Paul Pogba yesterday.

Maybe next week he’ll let me bring it to work.


RUN OF PLAY | Great Reads and More

1. Possible $25 billion payday constitutes a FIFA ‘emergency.’

FIFA will hold an emergency meeting in May to appear deliberative about a $25 billion offer from an international consortium that would transform global soccer competitions as we know them.

If it had been left to FIFA president Gianni Infantino, he probably would have continued to negotiate the deal in secret, and quickly, to avoid scrutiny.

But when he first told his board about the offer at a meeting in Colombia last month, “the sheer size of the number stunned the room,” according to Tariq Panja of The New York Times, who first reported the offer. The board ordered Infantino to stop negotiations.

The full FIFA council will now consider the offer from a consortium of Middle Eastern and Asian investors to run a new 24-team Club World Cup, and a proposed league for national teams. The Times reported that the investors are led by Japan’s Softbank, which runs a huge technology investment fund.  Other investors come from from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and the U.S., The Guardian notes.

The meeting in early May will be the first extraordinary session since 2015, when an emergency meeting was called after several FIFA board members accused of corruption were busted in a dawn raid on a Zurich hotel.

Read more from Panja in The Times about the emergency meeting.

2. Arsene Wenger’s African connection.

Though he never coached in the World Cup, the outgoing Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger made international soccer more exciting by championing African players who went on to lead their countries in the tournament.

“In his 22 years at Arsenal, Wenger signed 16 Africans from nine different countries most of whom were the first of their countrymen to play for the Gunners,” writes Yomi Kazeem for Quartz. “That number doesn’t include several other Arsenal players of African heritage who played for the national team of a European country.”

Most notable among them may be the World Cup winner Patrick Vieira of France, who was born in Senegal. The list also includes Nwankwo Kanu of Nigeria; Alex Song and Lauren of Cameroon; Kolo Toure and Emmanuel Eboue of Ivory Coast; and Emmanuel Adebayor of Togo.

George Weah of Liberia was an unknown striker when Wenger signed him at Monaco in 1988. Weah has said Wenger was one of the most important influences in his life.

Though he never played in the World Cup, Weah was voted FIFA World Footballer of the Year in 1995 (the only African to win that award) and elected president of Liberia (the whole country) in 2017.

Read more about Wenger’s legacy in African.

3. Fox Sports will have an American accent.

The World Cup’s U.S. broadcaster announced its lineup of 12 play-by-play announcers and color commentators Wednesday, eight of whom are American. ESPN, which broadcast the last two World Cups, used a bunch of British announcers.

Fox’s lead team of John Strong and Stu Holden will be in Russia, and they’ll call the final. JP Dellacamera and Tony Meola will call the host team’s opening match against Saudi Arabia on July 14. But they’re the only announcers who will actually be in Russia for the tournament. The rest will call games remotely from L.A.

Aly Wagner, a two-time Olympic gold medalist and veteran of two World Cups, will be the first woman to be a game analyst for a men’s World Cup on American TV.

Read more about the full roster of Fox’s announcers.


4. Where will you watch/drink?

I’m putting together a list of the best places to watch the World Cup. Where would you go for cold beer, enthusiastic fans and lots of banter?

Send me the names, team affiliations and links of the best places wherever you are in the world. I’ll compile a guide ahead of the tournament and keep it updated as best I can.

Read this excellent 2010 column by my friend George Vecsey, who hit three neighborhoods for three matches in a single morning.

The great fallacy is that the game is first and last about winning. It's nothing of the kind. The game is about glory. It's about doing things in style, with a flourish, about going out and beating the other lot, not waiting for them to die of boredom.

— Danny Blanchflower
Tottenham captain and Northern Ireland international turned journalist

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