Panini Fifa World Cup sticker craze lands in Dubai as swap shops open for business

Imported stickers do a roaring trade in swaps as Qatar build-up gathers pace

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A completed Fifa World Cup Panini sticker album is the pride of the playground in many parts of the world.

Every four years, children spend pocket money on collecting packs to swap with friends.

Created by Italian company Panini Group, the sticker albums have been released for every tournament since 1970.

It is like an assembly line, ticking off the got and need numbers as they come in. We are really into it and so are our three daughters
Simon Smedley (DJ Catboy from Dubai 92)

They are again a popular feature ahead of this year's World Cup in Qatar.

Even in Dubai, the hunt for them is as strong as anywhere, despite the stickers not being available for sale locally because there are no distributors.

This year, the feat of collecting all 670 stickers for the latest album is likely to be the most expensive yet.

Depending on where you live in the world, a complete collection will cost about $135 (Dh500) ― that is, of course, if you get all the stickers the first time around.

Big costs

While that is hugely unlikely, the secondary market is where the fun is ― with total costs likely to be closer to $270 (Dh1,000) to fill an album.

Typically, duplicates are swapped with friends, with shiny stickers of a national badge or stadium picture usually commanding a higher value.

Chris Huntley, 38, a British primary school teacher who also trades in vintage football shirts with RetroSportifDXB, is an avid collector who established Dubai’s first bi-weekly swap shop.

“Collecting Panini stickers is something I do for every World Cup,” said Mr Huntley, who says France 98 was his most memorable tournament.

“In Dubai, I’ve noticed it is something people want, but there are no distributors here.

“I have a friend in the UK who sends them over to me, but the trading element keeps it cheaper and is part of the fun.”

Regular swap shops

Chris Huntley, who began collecting World Cup stickers 32 years ago for Italia 90, hosts regular swap shops at Nightjar coffee shop in Alserkal Avenue. Photo: Simon Smedley

Stickers can be bought online, but books are few and far between and are often the US or South American versions.

While Panini offers an option to buy missing stickers to complete a book, aficionados believe in the purity of the swap deals.

Mr Huntley, who began collecting World Cup stickers 32 years ago for Italia 90, hosts regular swap shops at Nightjar coffee shop in Alserkal Avenue.

The final book he completed was the 2014 Brazil World Cup edition.

“I was a teacher and remember well the kid who I swapped the final sticker with that I needed ― it was a big day,” Mr Huntley said.

“It is hard to describe the feeling of seeing the corner of a shiny badge in a sticker pack; it is almost like the excitement of Christmas Day.

"Especially when you are down to the lower numbers required, the hunt for random players like Bryan Oviedo becomes obsessive."

A quirk of the phenomenon is that plenty of players featured in the album don’t actually reach the World Cup, either being omitted from final squads or suffering injuries in the build-up.

As albums and stickers are printed well in advance of squad announcements for national teams, inclusions are based on expectations by publishers Panini.

For the 2018 World Cup in Russia, 89 stickers were printed of players who ended up not going to the tournament.

They included high-profile stars Leroy Sane and Alvaro Morata, whose form nosedived at the end of the 2018 season, and French stars Laurent Koscielny, Adrien Rabiot, Alexandre Lacazette and Anthony Martial ― all left out of the World Cup-winning squad.

Sense of community

Another avid Dubai collector is Simon Smedley ― better known locally as radio DJ Catboy on Dubai 92 ― who has been involved in collecting World Cup stickers since 1978.

“My uncle Martin introduced me to it. I remember he had a pile of swapsies about four inches thick,” he said.

“I’ve done it every four years and still not completed a book.

“So far for Qatar, I’ve bought two boxes of 100 packets for Dh350 each and spent about Dh800 in total. I’m still about 20 short, so I should be able to fill it for under Dh1,000.

“It’s a false economy to buy any more packets, because from 30 packets we had just one that we needed, so I’m relying on swaps now.”

Mr Smedley, who admits to not being a football fan outside of the World Cup, is heavily involved with the swap shop meet-ups. His wife Lorra has even developed a spreadsheet of stickers required.

“It is like an assembly line, ticking off the got and need numbers as they come in,” he said.

“We are really into it and so are our three daughters.

“The swap shop is developing a real sense of community.

“But there are rules, like two normal stickers for a badge or a shiny sticker ― some kids need educating about that.

“It is a rite of passage, and certainly helps build the excitement in the run-up to Qatar.”

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Updated: October 24, 2022, 3:30 PM