By Sid Lowe
July 26, 2010

Never mind Mesut Ozil. Forget Thomas Mueller. And as for Keisuke Honda ... pah! The discovery of the World Cup was Danny Shittu.

Maybe not in South Africa, but certainly in Spain. He might not have made much of an impact on the football field but, boy, has he made an impact off it. Even if he doesn't realize it himself. Nothing can match the joy of laying your eyes on the Nigeria defender. Danny Shittu / Lagos, 2-9-1980 / 1,88m / 81 kg / Bolton Wanderers (ENG) ... No. 133 in the Panini sticker album for the 2010 World Cup.

It's confession time: I am over 30 and I am collecting soccer stickers.

Purely as a journalistic tool, you understand. It doesn't matter how closely you think you follow the game, you start every World Cup knowing you haven't got a clue who half the players are. You couldn't even recite names for half the countries, let alone tell your Carlos Pavons from your Carlos Costlys (and, unlike with TV commentators who insist on talking about "your Villas" and "your Rooneys" as if there is more than one of them and they belong to you, this time the plural and the possession are justified; with soccer stickers there almost always is.)

Collecting soccer stickers is the best way to acquaint yourself with the players, to put names to faces -- even if, because they're made some time before the tournament, they might not necessarily be in the squad at all. (Isn't that right, Theo?) Yes, collecting soccer stickers is all in a day's work.

Well, that's what I've told myself anyway. The truth is I am sad. And I am addicted. I can't go a day without my fix of got-got-got-got-NEED! I'm not complete until North Korea is. Which reminds me: I don't suppose you've got Ri Chol-Myong in swap, have you? He's No. 515.

It's pretty embarrassing. And, like most addictions, it's also costly. Carlos Costly. There are 640 stickers to collect. Even if you benefit from some trades, you'd still have to spend well more than $130 to finish the album. And that's never going to happen. According to some sticker statistician on the BBC, you would need to buy 4,505 stickers to ensure completing the album. Which leaves you with a hell of a pile of stickers to trade. And a hell of a hole in your pocket.

And besides, it's actually more than that. Our statistician friend has missed a vital variable: Panini's sneakiness. A spokeswoman for Panini said the other day that the company produces exactly the same number of every sticker. There are as many Leo Messis, she said, as there are Eren Derdiyoks.

She's a liar. Everyone knows that*. Everyone knows that there are certain players who are rare and others who are so common that by the time you've finished you can't get their mugs out of your head. And, yes, Andre-Pierre Gignac, I am looking at you. Even as I wish I wasn't. Surely it can't be coincidence that I have bought only two England players ever? I'm not sure Emile Heskey even exists. On the pitch or on a sticker.

Anyway, I happened to mention this the other day. I was having a bit of a rant about the lack of England players -- I had Greeks coming out my ears -- when someone said I was talking rubbish. They said the hardest player to find -- the "rarest" -- was actually former QPR and current Bolton defender Danny Shittu. When I was a kid, it was David Seaman when he was still at Birmingham City, but now I was reliably informed it was Shittu.

I don't know if they had just been seduced by his name -- it still cracks me up to see my nephew in a QPR shirt with Shittu on the back; then again, as we have already established, I'm childish -- but I had to agree. I hadn't seen Shittu anywhere.

If I just carried on buying stickers, I wouldn't either. Which meant that I had to start swapping.

Thing is, if you can't go down to the shop and pretend that you're buying stickers for a son you haven't even got, you can't really hang around kids' playgrounds. If you sidle up to a small boy and ask if he wants to see your Michael Ballacks, you tend to end up in the back of a police car with some serious explaining to do.

That leaves just two options. Send friends who are teachers down to school with a list of "swapsies" and meet up with the sons of friends -- a swapsie session with parental supervision, just in case anyone gets the wrong idea. But although it was comforting to discover that it was more my friend than his son who was really collecting them, and although some teachers didn't even need to swap stickers but just confiscate them, it was not enough. Mostly, it doesn't bring much reward.

I still didn't have Shittu.

That was when someone mentioned a wonderful, magical place. A square in Madrid, just south of the famous Rastro flea market, where every Sunday morning becomes a sticker stock exchange, hundreds of people gathering round chanting the same words like a mantra. Got-got-got-got-NEED!

He was right. Truly, it was a wonder to behold. And if at first I felt a little furtive, soon I was in there too. Everyone's dark secret was out in the open. Everywhere, people had thrown off their shackles, embarrassed no more. Kids in football shirts and adults with hygiene problems, students and office workers, everyone crowded around doing deals. Everyone had lovingly prepared lists, number by number, of the stickers they had in swap and the ones they need, carefully crossing them off with a colossal grin as they came across the Slovakian defender they really needed.

And they were all so ... well, nice.

Not only were there people swapping stickers, but there were also others selling them, out of plastic ring binders packed with transparent pages with a slot for each player. Mostly at 20 cents each, but some cost more. They were catering for people who want certain stickers rather than collectors who just want to complete their album -- whether that's with Wesley Sneijder or Wes Brown. It's a handy guide to which players people like more. Wayne Rooney, for example, costs $2.60 and Kaká only $1.90, while the most expensive are -- naturally -- the "shineys," especially the World Cup.

They were also catering for the desperate collector. As soon as a seller gets wind of a player being "rare," the price goes up. How else do you explain the bizarrely high fee for Tranquillo Barnetta (Switzerland, No. 593)? Unless it's for the comedy value of having someone basically called "Chilled Out" Barnetta, I suppose.

Anyway, I was saying how nice they all were. And this is the point. Because while some were selling, looking for profit, preying on people's addictions, sucking the blood, the life and the money out of them, those swapping most certainly were not. When I was a kid, the shineys were worth at least five and if you had Ian Rush in swapsies and someone needed him to finish Liverpool -- or, better still, get to the mythical 50-stickers-left mark where you can send off for the remainder -- you could and most definitely did claim a whole stack of riches in return.

Not here; here it was one for one all the way. Got-got-got-got-NEED! Great, have it. It's yours. And I'll have one of yours. Some were even giving them away, more of them:I took six off you but you need 10 of mine? Forget it, have all 10. Yeah, of course I'm sure, what do I want it for?

Simple, straight, no messing and no problems.

Well, not many problems. Because still there was no sign of Shittu. Maybe he really didn't exist. Maybe he was officially the rarest player at the World Cup. Mr. Seller, the sticker pusher who preyed upon us all, clearly thought so too, because when I turned to him in desperation he did have Shittu, but he was 50 cents, or 20 cents more than most. It was a rip-off! But naturally, I accepted. I am, after all, an addict, desperate for a fix. So I bought him. If only to prove that he really does exist.

And then, inevitably, it happened. Clutching my prize, satisfied, relieved, a job well done, I left. Just as I got to the far side of the square, a man and his girlfriend crossed my path asking if I had swaps and pressing a huge pile of his into my hands. I started riffling through them. Soon I was staring at one familiar flipping face. Got-got-got-got-.... Shittu! Got-got-got-got-.... Shittu! Gah! Typical.

Bloody typical.

*Disclaimer: she might not actually be lying. And everybody might not "know" that.

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