Spam email often claims that it can help with feelings of inadequacy, but Ian Plenderleith is using the internet to make up for sortcomings he's been feeling for 27 years now: in his Panini collections

When Panini fever hit my school in the late 1970s, I couldn’t run with the pack. A search of my closet reveals the sad truth that for the two years I was an active collector, I fell short every time – 21 stickers shy of a full Euro Football album and nine too few for a total Football 78. Meanwhile the huge gaps in World Cup 78 and Football 79 reveal a young teenager tiring of the pre-pubescent norms and possibly collecting pictures of a different nature altogether.

My failure to complete Football 78 still rankles after all these years. I didn’t even bother sending off to Panini for the missing stickers at 2p each, despite the clear instructions on the album’s inside back cover. Then it finally occurred to me over a quarter of a century later – what better place to patch up the past and achieve collector’s closure than at that crossroads of universal sadbastardry, the internet?

I rushed online to Marcus Vaska’s Kingdom Panini homepage. This man loves Panini so much that he’s after the entire Czech footballers’ 1999 collection, and he’s willing to trade a full World Cup 2002 album to get it. He’s also after some missing slots in his Tougaroo Wild Animals and his Tintin collections. This kind of trading was clearly out of my league and I moved on.

The official Panini UK site had my hopes up briefly when I clicked on the “Missing Stickers” section, but selfishly the company does not seem to stock stickers going back further than the end of the last century, even though my Football 78 2p-each offer doesn’t state a time limit. Still, it was amusing to find the Scottish Premier League 2005 album (“an enchanted world of fantasy, romance and happy endings…”) right above the Disney Princess album (“the perfect compliment to the exciting 2005 season…”) Hang on, didn’t those two get mixed up? Perhaps not.

Much more dangerous was the Muscara website, where you can order whole boxes of 100 packets of unopened stickers for, say, the Cyprus 2002-03 season for just $28. Or what about Venezuela, La Vinotinto 2003, $20 for a box of 50 packets? You can buy blank sticker books for this stuff all over Ebay and now I was suddenly torn by a desire to recreate the rush home from school, the reckless flinging down of my bike and the spilling of my sports bag out on to the bedroom floor. Then, the hurried rip of the packet, the fervent shuffling of its contents, the crippling disappointment of doubles, but the delight of the new and the anticipation of unpeeling the sticker from its backing, to be followed by its meticulous placing within a virginal border...

This ritual became less gratifying, and much more frustrating, as you approached completion. And I was disgusted to see you can also buy whole collections, with their albums, stickers either mounted or unmounted. Where’s the joy in that? Collecting stuff is meant to be as pointlessly arduous and expensive as possible. It’s what you do when you want the world to leave you alone. He collects stickers, steer clear. The older and more anti-social I become, the more attractive a hobby it seems again.

One more thing about the Muscara site – it seems that most of the German stickers have sold out. Ha ha, we can see you, the sticker geeks of Europe. Still it should make for some fertile swapping next year for the inevitable World Cup 2006 collection.

It was, unsurprisingly, Ebay where I finally found some of my missing men from Football 78, hiding among random piles of has-beens. I bid on lots including Kenny Dalglish (number 208), Irving Nattrass (265), Peter Latchford (415) and the Clydebank Gold Sticker (466 – and so common in “swaps” piles that I became complacent, thinking I could get it any time). Kenny Burns, David Craig, John Hickton, Brian Greenhoff and the Chelsea team will also one day take their rightful places on the page, and on that day I will celebrate.

But how? By listening to and watching “Panini Stickers”, which is the title of “a music-video of the performance art duo, THE (Professors Phil Larson and Ed Harkins of the Department of Music at the University of California at San Diego)”.

My guess is that Phil and Ed were like me. When the sticker craze hit the University of California they could never quite fill their albums, but instead of turning into cynical, embittered adults, they channelled all their sticker angst into this creative meisterwerk. Formerly obsessive collectors who couldn’t quite cut it now travel to California to the Profs’ Panini retreat to purge themselves of insecurities brought on by failing to stay the course. To achieve this, they watch Panini Stickers, a performance that reportedly employs “complex gestures and rhythms in works which merge surrealism, Dadaist-like poetry and music”.

Got that? Yeah, got it.

From WSC 220 June 2005. What was happening this month

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