Football: When missing players in a Panini album stick out like sore thumbs

David Lee needs six stickers to complete his Fifa World Cup Russia 2018 sticker album.
David Lee needs six stickers to complete his Fifa World Cup Russia 2018 sticker album.PHOTO: DAVID LEE

Four, 20, 33, 39, 40, 45.

The numbers remain stuck in my mind and I am still waiting to hit the jackpot.

Except that these are not Toto numbers, but the six remaining stickers I need to complete my Fifa World Cup Russia 2018 sticker album before I leave for Moscow.

The football tournament may involve 32 countries, but this is truly a global game which everyone can be part of.

Nerves of steel and total concentration are a must - I have witnessed the horror of a sticker glued to a wrong spot - but instead of dancing feet, we are a tribe with steady hands.

Getting it in the box is key because each 64mm by 49mm piece must be pasted precisely within their allocated spaces.

Weeks ago, I was near the halfway mark of the 670 stickers - 30 more than the previous album - required for completion.

At that point, you don't just get an education about the more obscure teams and players, you learn that the task becomes more and more arduous, not to mention addictive.

That is when a missing Osama Hawsawi is worth more than two Cristiano Ronaldos.

Desperate situations call for desperate measures.

Thieves in Brazil hijacked a delivery van and stole 300,000 of the adhesives four years ago and a teacher in Colombia confiscated stickers from his students just so he could complete his own album. Gunmen also broke into a printing house in Argentina earlier this month to steal more than 600 boxes containing 1,000 packets of stickers each.

I don't condone such actions but I can understand the frustration of firing blanks.

Focus and financial muscle are required, and like an incorrigible gambler, I thought to myself then: "Okay, just one more packet."

The first face out of the five stickers that greeted me from a new packet was Argentina's Sergio Aguero, a top player who has just won the English Premier League with Manchester City.

But my face dropped. Reputation counts for nothing in sticker collections, and I already have this No. 278.

I must have looked like the God of Gamblers as I held the stickers close, peering over the edges of Aguero to see who it was below him.

It was an unfamiliar face: No. 625, Colombia's Frank Fabra.

Hurriedly, I turned to the last few pages, only to find the little imp smiling back at me.

That was not my day and all five stickers were doubles (extras) I already had. Another $1.20 wasted.

At that point, I had spent just over $100 and pasted 323 stickers with 127 doubles.

In March, The Guardian reported that the average football fan should expect to buy 4,832 stickers, or spend close to over £750 (S$1,340), to complete the whole album. The figure is so eye-watering as it factors in the probability of accruing duplicates.

There has to be a more efficient and less costly way to do this. Enter the Panini Swapsies Group - Singapore Facebook Page.

It has more than 600 members, and a lot of action as posts of what stickers were needed and what were available for trade trickled in.

There is an unspoken code - you can trade without charging or you may sell a double at the cost price of about 20 cents per sticker. The 50 shiny stickers - logos, team crests and legends - may cost more.

Over a few weeks, as my album began to fill up, I was meeting random people from all walks of life at different MRT stations.

There was a sweet and sporty university student who dabbled in the World Cup trading cards, a friendly tattooed beng who was trying to complete two albums at once, a woman who was making all this effort to help her brother who was overseas, a professional in suit and tie who quarrelled with his wife over his obsession and even a fellow journalist.

We talked about how previous albums were more informative, what got them started, what albums they've attempted to complete before and sometimes even non-football-related stuff like which was the best chicken rice stall in Hougang.

It aptly became a team game.

With the same objective, we would check on each other's album status or refer one to the other, hoping that our albums would be completed soon.

And mine is almost done.

But as I plastered the final few stickers, just a few days before the World Cup begins, I'm facing a, well, sticky situation.

I'm getting the yips. My hands are wobbly and the stickers threatened to misalign, as I think about how empty I will feel after I have them all.

In a perverse way, I don't want it to end.

Oh well, if I see the hard cover gold or platinum album in Russia, I might go for the double and do it all over again. Or I can wait for Euro 2020 to swing by.