Newspapers recalling decades of sporting glory line the walls, cupboards overflow with stickers of soccer legends and on a desk, pristine packets lie tantalizingly waiting to be opened: Welcome to the home of Gianni Bellini, the man with a claim to the biggest soccer sticker album collection in the world.
Bellini boasts 4,000 completed albums filled with about 2 million stickers and another 400,000 yet to stick in.
“Every day after I’ve finished work and picked up my grandson from school, I spend at least four to six hours working on them,” Bellini told reporters.
The 54-year-old typographer lives in the small town of San Felice sul Panaro, about 30km from Modena, Italy — the heartland of renowned sticker maker Panini.
He began his collection at about age 13, before taking a small break a few years later, “more interested in girls” than stickers, he said.
However, soon after getting married at age 19, Bellini picked up where he left off and published ads in newspapers around the world looking for fellow collectors with whom to exchange albums.
“I received 600 to 700 letters a month, it was the start of correspondences and friendships, many of which I still have today,” he said laughing.
His wife, Giovanna, who is also a soccer fan, does not mind her husband’s die-hard hobby.
“I support him and I’m happy too. That way he’s always at home, where I can keep an eye on him; he doesn’t go to the bar,” she said jokingly.
Every day, Bellini checks for new products online and keeps up with his about 300 correspondents.
“I send about 5,000 e-mails a year,” he said, pouring over a large diary where everything is logged.
His entire collection is also archived on his computer.
“It’s an amazing feeling to finally have the album in your hands,” Bellini said as he opened a fresh packet from Mexico. “But once that emotion is over, you’re already thinking about the next album.”
Bellini spends 4,000 to 5,000 euros (US$4,651 to US$5,814) per year on his albums, which are stored carefully at 23°C.
Nothing is for sale, because “the real collector buys, exchanges, but does not sell,” he said.
Bellini’s most-prized album is that of the 1970 FIFA World Cup in Mexico.
“Panini’s first international album,” Bellini said proudly.
On the other hand, the thought of the 1986 Egyptian championship album still makes him shudder: The album got lost when he sent it to be translated and he only found another copy 20 years later.
For Bellini, the albums are also a record of shifts in modern culture, because “over the years, you see the changing hairstyles, shirts etc,” he said.
The Panini factory in Modena has become almost a second home for him, and he buys albums and stickers directly from there.
Although the Italian publisher represents only about half of his collection — there are other manufacturers, such as Topps, which holds the rights to the UEFA Champions League — Bellini insisted that Panini is “the best.”
He also regularly holds exhibits of his collection and is involved in a project to open a museum in Chiasso, Switzerland, which is expected to be inaugurated in the middle of next year.
Bellini said he hopes that his seven-year-old grandson will share his passion, but added that he would have to earn his stripes.
“He must understand that he must buy a package, exchange the pictures he is missing with his friends... Opening a package is like finding some treasure, you never know if you’ll find the image that you’re missing, that’s what’s beautiful,” he said.
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