Have we entered an Age of Infantilism? When you can see people well past the age of majority dressed in animal onesies, when the Harry Potter novels are available in plain covers for grown-ups, it should perhaps come as no surprise that with the World Cup looming there's a rush to get those Panini sticker albums filled. A rush by adults, that is.
A friend of a friend, a 30-year-old teacher, reported going into his local convenience store in Kingston upon Thames to buy some World Cup stickers, only to be told that another man had just been in and paid £50 to clean them out. And in a branch of WH Smith's in the City recently, two banker types were seen to buy 60 packs between them, which they then took outside and began divvying up.
Something strange is going on, and not just in Britain. A teacher in the Colombian city of Bucaramanga has been accused of confiscating pupils' stickers – to fill out his own collection. A 13-year-old reported having some snatched by the teacher, who justified himself by saying that sticker-related transactions were distracting pupils from their work – only to be seen later in the staff room pasting them into his own album.
In fact, Colombia is in the vanguard of Paninimania, with, it's estimated, well over a million albums in the country. They use smartphone apps to track down missing mugshots, and counterfeit cards and albums are a growing problem. In Rio recently, meanwhile, a van carrying 300,000 stickers was stolen – not for the vehicle, presumably, but for its contents.
Panini, an Italian comics-and-collectibles company, has been producing football stickers since the 1960s, its first World Cup album coming in 1970 (a complete album from that time was on eBay yesterday with the bidding at £1,800). And that's the key to their popularity – they smack of pre-lapsarian innocence, when footballers sported mullets without shame and baby-boomers were in short pants. As the psychologist Felix Economakis says: "Little objects from childhood are imbued with meaning because they remind us of people who may no longer be with us – it's an association with the past through rose-tinted spectacles."
There's a childlike pleasure to be had in tracking down the ones you haven't got, and then the tactile pleasure of sticking them in, filling in the gaps and striving for completion and wholeness. A swift in-house survey revealed a sizeable contingent of Panini fans among the Indy staff, with regular swap sessions on the go.
Several parents have been drawn in, too (and when it could easily cost £200 to fill an album, not many children will get there under their own financial steam). "My daughter is nearly four and I bought one for her," one mum told me. "She's only half-interested so I've taken it over and am filling it in. A whole new world of joy."
And the father of an eight-year-old aficionado, Ollie, reported: "I have nothing to do with it, other than funding acquisitions, looking at the stickers, supervising all adhesion issues, advising on swaps, assessing value of foil stickers..."
Last year, Portsmouth fan Adam Carroll-Smith actually wrote a book, Six Stickers, about his quest to fill the final gaps in his Merlin 1996 Premier League album, 17 years after the event. He did it by tracking down each of the missing players, who shrugged off any fears they might have had about being stalked by a possible psycho and agreed to have their photos taken.
To his credit, Carroll-Smith is under no illusions about the worth or otherwise of his achievement: "Even my now completed album, if I sold it on eBay I'd probably get, what, a tenner? Ultimately, it probably is pointless and stupid, but then, what isn't?" Indeed so.
He didn't put it on eBay, anyway. He threw it in the Solent instead – "a symbolic way of showing I'd grown up," he said. I'm willing to bet he's the only person ever to have done that with a complete Panini album.