Missing stars, wrong teams, two albums to fill: Euro 2024 stickers are a mess

Published on: 15 June 2024

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Euro 2024 is upon us, but it might not be the fiercest football competition as far as stakes, drama and intensity go this summer. Away from the pitches of Germany, where 24 national teams will battle to become European champions, the clash between the tournament's sticker albums is raging.

UEFA's official sticker album, produced by Topps, has two-time Champions League-winning manager José Mourinho appearing in its marketing campaign. But it doesn't have some of Europe's best national teams in their official kits, is missing some of the world's biggest stars, includes some teams who didn't qualify for the tournament and features players who were never close to being selected. Panini, the previous rights holder, put out an album anyway. Its version features five of the tournament's top teams, with all of the star players in their official kits.

"Panini has put out their own booklet, but you're not going to collect two books, are you?" England fan Chris Abbott, who is collecting the official Topps stickers with his young son, says. Without investing their time and money on both albums, the pair will never be able to collect every player.

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An era ended when Topps, which is owned by U.S.-based sports retailer Fanatics, announced that it was replacing Panini as the sticker rights holder for the 2024 and 2028 men's Euros, the 2025 women's Euros and UEFA Nations League finals through 2028. Panini, an Italian company, produced every Euros sticker album from 1977 through 2020, and still boasts the FIFA World Cup rights which it has held since 1970.

"Panini sticker albums were a massive part of the preparation before any tournament [because] before the age of the internet, you'd never seen these faces," Greg Lansdowne, the author of "Stuck on You: The Rise and Fall...and Rise of Panini Stickers" tells ESPN. "You'd never seen El Salvador or Honduras players anywhere. You just wouldn't. So when you saw them in the Panini sticker album these were new to you. And then when you saw them on the television for the game you said, 'Oh, I know him from the Panini sticker album.'"

Because of licensing agreements, four football superpowers -- defending champions Italy, Euro 2020 runners-up England, 2022 World Cup finalists France and Euro 2024 hosts Germany -- don't appear in their official kits in Topps. (The respective national football associations have all been contacted for comment by ESPN.)

The official Euro 2024 sticker book by Topps doesn't have every star player or all of the teams in the right kits. For those, fans must complete a second album from Panini. How did this happen? ESPN

England internationals such as AC Milan's Fikayo Tomori, Ajax's Jordan Henderson, Manchester City duo Jack Grealish and Rico Lewis, Manchester United's Mason Mount and Newcastle United's Callum Wilson appear in Topps' UEFA album, but weren't selected in the Three Lions' 26-man squad. If you're looking for official stickers of City Premier League winners Phil Foden or John Stones, or Arsenal's Bukayo Saka, then you're out of luck.

"Topps is proud of its first Euro 2024 sticker collection for the upcoming competition," Fanatics Collectibles said in a statement provided to ESPN regarding that issue. "While we are disappointed that a small number of players are missing, this is due to the tournament's former sticker partner having blocked certain parts of the collection to the detriment of the fans. Unlike the former sticker partner, we are committed to the fans and believe the offering of stickers and cards -- and range of current and former players -- will get everyone excited for the tournament."

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England, like the other aforementioned countries, can be found in their official kits in Panini's album. Spain, meanwhile, are the only team to appear in their official kits in both books.

"Panini has been synonymous with football for over 60 years, and we remain committed to producing the best possible product for our collectors [and] we look forward to doing this for generations to come," Panini said in a statement to ESPN. "We are extremely proud to hold the official rights to the England Senior teams and feel passionately about creating official product for collectors within the rights available to us."

Some other global stars are absent from Topps' book as well, including the Golden Boot winner at the last World Cup and one of the most experienced players for the host nation.

"[France striker Kylian] Mbappé [and Germany goalkeeper Manuel] Neuer, they're not in the Topps album," Lansdowne says. "There are a lot of England players who -- if you know your England football, you'll look at them and think, 'How did they get in there?'"

Nothing against Leicester City's Luke Thomas, but the uncapped defender who spent the second half of the season on loan at second-tier Middlesbrough was never likely to receive a late call-up to Gareth Southgate's squad for this tournament. But the 23-year-old is present among the England players in the Topps album, while many of the key members of the squad in Germany are only available for Panini collectors.

"We are unable to comment on why our competitors have opted to leave a number of players from their product offering," Panini's statement to ESPN continues.

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In the late 1980s, a company called Merlin Publishing was founded by former Panini employees. Lansdowne says Merlin "made their name" producing sticker albums of wrestling stars after WWE and WCW shows began being broadcast in the U.K. "That," Lansdowne adds, "gave the Premier League the confidence to give them the [league] license to make an album for the second year of the Premier League, 1993-94. Then, within two years of that, they were sold to Topps."

Topps, which was purchased by Fanatics for around $500 million in January 2022, won the English Premier League rights for trading cards and stickers back from Panini last month, having previously been a Premier League partner from 1994 to 2019. That multiyear deal kicks into place starting with the 2025-26 season. Fanatics has also wrestled NBA/NBAPA and NFLPA card rights from Panini.

Fierce competition over licensing rights in recent years -- and the sums invested in them -- reinforces just how lucrative the collectibles market is at present. Football sticker albums' popularity had waned since their heyday but, according to Lansdowne, experienced a renaissance during the 2006 World Cup that hasn't abated. Finishing a sticker album ahead of a major tournament was a rite of passage that continues to be passed down the generations.

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"People don't like change, do they?" Lansdowne says. "A lot of articles in the U.K. have been written by people who collected Panini Euro stickers, and the gist of it is quite wistful. But it's healthy to have competing rivals. Once you get one, then obviously they can do what they want, can't they?"

According to Abbott, who is helping his 4-year-old son Fionn collect his first sticker album, finishing has proven difficult.

"We still need another 150 stickers," the bicycle tour operator from Whitstable, England tells ESPN. "It's a bit of a poor show. You're not predicting the right players, [there are many] duplicates and it's difficult to complete because we don't really know anyone else doing it, so we can't swap like I used to on the playground."

The Topps Euro 2024 starter bundle -- which includes a blank album, 24 stickers and 10 six-sticker packs -- costs £15.99 (around $20.50) on Topps' U.K. site. Each subsequent individual sticker packet is £1 ($1.27). The album is 88 pages and has space for 728 stickers. "We might not end up completing it, which I was really excited to do," Abbott continues.

Some estimates put the cost of completing both albums in the realm of $1,200. For serious American collectors -- an eight-card box of 2023-24 Panini Impeccable Premier League cards (out in late August) costs $1,200 -- that sum might not raise eyebrows. However, when the U.K. has recently been affected by "historic falls in real household disposable income" that pushed inflation "to its highest rate in 40 years," according to the U.K. Treasury's Office for Budget Responsibility, the cost isn't just steep for many people. It's impossible to justify.

For Abbott, a lifelong Tottenham Hotspur supporter, it's simply another matter of being a football fan in 2024.

"Football's a lot more corporate these days, the Premier League is a global league now, they're not targeting domestic fans so much anymore," he says. "A good chunk of fans miss football for what it was: Getting a ticket on the gate, [you] don't have to book it online two months in advance. I used to go to games with friends; when my boys are older, going to games with me is the only way they'll be able to afford a ticket."

Source: espn.co.uk

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