If I were to say I was partial to a bit of Panini, you'd be forgiven for thinking I was referring to my fondness for toasted deli sandwiches. After all, what else could an (at least biologically defined) adult man, juggling an almost real job with labour intensive day-to-day tasks such as checking emails, remembering to buy fresh milk and deciding whether to get dressed each morning or instead remain stoically be-dressing gowned, be referring to?
Notwithstanding this overwhelming evidence in support of my credentials as a serious and responsible pillar of the community, you may be surprised to learn that I'm not, in fact, alluding to what the Italians call 'Panini' (small bread rolls), but instead to what the Italians call 'Panini' (football stickers). Yes, despite my better judgment (and that of many of my friends and family), I have once again caved in to a combination of temptation, nostalgia and clever marketing (Panini's Twitter account has already coined the fiendishly clever 'GotGotNeed' hashtag) and vowed, like some kind of deranged Pokémon master, to collect them all.
As far as obsessive behaviour is concerned, this is, to my parents dismay, nothing new; for as long as I've understood the concept of owning stuff, I've wanted it in multiple. Initially at school, my collector's instincts proved advantageous, paving the way to becoming a bartering dab-hand with the ability to swap everything from action figures to trading cards (The Spice Girls Photocard Collection being a particular favourite) to the pinnacle of my fanatical fixations, football stickers, with my beleaguered classmates. However, as they grew out of stickers and into a world of surreptitious cigs and bike shed fumbles, I was left behind, reverting to the one thing I knew best: collecting. What followed were increasingly eccentric forays into rare stamps, ancient coins, fossils and antiquities; in essence, anything to offset the fact that I was a textbook late bloomer.
Bloom I eventually (and mercifully) did, graduating in to more grown-up pursuits (which basically meant socialising but with the introduction of alcohol) as I started University. My collections, once the glorious centrepiece of my painfully self-conscious teenage world, were now relegated to my parents' loft, a forgotten relic of my former self. Apart from they weren't really forgotten at all, more just temporarily overlooked. The obsessive spark that had for so long guided me still flickered somewhere within, hidden behind carefully curated layers of newfound confidence and a commitment to sampling Jägerbombs in each and every bar I chanced upon.
Now, as the dust begins to settle on my twenties, I can feel myself slipping back into the same old hoarding habits. So when a friend suggested last month that a few of us try and complete Panini's latest offering, a sort of spicy hors d'oeuvre before the feast of football at this summer's World Cup, I literally jumped at the chance...before quickly realising I'm no longer seven years old and an email in the affirmative would suffice.
So, one month back off the wagon, how does it measure up to my fabled collecting days of yore? Well, inevitably, the intervening twenty years have seen some changes, primarily on my part. For one thing, I'm able to afford multiple packs now without having to forgo lunch, and at a mere 50p a pop, I've revelled in the lifting of these financial shackles. Furthermore, a little generation-defining thing called the Internet has since seeped into existence, spawning, amongst other things, an app that allows collectors to keep up to date with which stickers they have, which they still need, and which they've already accumulated 13 of (you know who you are, Diego Reyes). But perhaps most appropriately, in a mind boggling development that brings together the web-age's two most quintessential fascinations, retail and narcissism, there is now the ability to create a personalised Panini sticker of one's own face; a sticker selfie, if you will. There's even a space for it in the album. In the name of research, I bravely volunteered to have some made, and am now the proud owner of eleven Ben Shires-based slips of adhesive joy. Truly, my life is complete.
Of course, there are also plenty of things that never change: the rush of opening new packs, breath momentarily held whilst a silent prayer is uttered for the emergence of just one Dany Nounkeu, the missing piece of my Cameroon puzzle. A player previously unknown to me, he now dominates my every waking thought...and some of my sleeping ones, too. Then there's the unbridled glee at discovering a coveted 'shiny', this year rolled out to include not only team badges, but the World Cup itself, the tournament logo and even the ball. God knows it needs some good PR after the mauling its cousin the Jabulani got last time round. And finally, there are the swaps. At first, when space allowed, I kept them tucked neatly in the inner flap of my album, ready for immediate trading. Then, when they outgrew that, they were transferred to a drawer. Now, almost a month into collecting, and with swap-ortunities™ limited, I'm seriously considering hiring a storage container with which to house them. Before too long I'll have enough to spawn a new mountain range atop which to trade, complete with a river of shinies, hundreds of half-finished Brazilian stadia and a towering summit of Diego Reyes' ever-repeating face.
Detractors (by which I mean concerned friends) have questioned my reasons for what, in their eyes, appears a trivial pursuit, not to mention the money I must be wasting (those 50 pences begin to add up when you're buying 20 packs at a time). But there's too much I love about these stickers - making villains out of the players who frequently crop up, no matter their fame; lionising those tricky to find utility men for Honduras or Algeria and practising indifference when encountering England players, an emotion that will prove invaluable come the tournament proper - to give up on them now. And anyway, I'm 69% complete (according to the app at least); quitting would surely be a waste of money. So I'll carry on, buying stickers with reckless abandon, resisting the urge to question young children on whether they're carrying swaps and forever cursing the name of Diego Reyes. Oh, and if anyone has a Dany Nounkeu they want to trade for a limited edition Ben Shires, you know where to find me.