The man with the world's largest collection of Panini sticker albums

Got, got... need!

Few childhood sensations came close to the feeling of ripping open a rectangular packet of stickers emblazoned with the face of a footballer you've been desperately tracking down.

Likewise, there were few horrors that equalled the dreaded dud pack, swamped with unswappable 'swaps'.

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Many schoolkids (and full-grown adults) are set to enjoy that feeling again following the release of the World Cup 2018 sticker album today.

For most, collecting football stickers was (or still is) a hobby, but for Gianni Bellini it is a way of life.

The Italian is the proud owner of almost 3,000 completed Panini albums.

A small portion of Gianni Bellini's sticker album collection

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Like most sticker collecting enthusiasts, Bellini first caught the bug at a young age.

"I first held Panini stickers in my hands as a child aged between ten and twelve years old. From that moment on, I have never stopped collecting."

He isn't lying.

From a single packets of stickers in the 1980s, Bellini's collection has grown to a mammoth 2,956 albums, 2,810 of which are complete.

Gianni's favourite sticker albums

Calciatori Italia 1972-73: I remember that for having the missing sticker that I needed to complete this collection (the player was Ivano Bordon), I exchanged 500 of my double stickers.

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Football Belgio 1972-73: Another album of the years 1972-1973 which I am fond of is the first album that Panini made for the foreign leagues.

Europa 1980: A very important collection, the first one that has ever been made for this kind of event (the European Championship).

On top of this mountain of football nostalgia, he also has 1,096 series of cards, all of which are complete.

Bellini's collection covers leagues from across the globe, from his native Serie A to the Finnish Veikkausliga.

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"Most important passions happen just by chance," he says of how he first fell in love with collecting.

'I spent €1,000 on an album'

For most of us as children, buying a single packet of Panini stickers always felt like a treat. If we were feeling kind on ourselves we might even stretch to four or five packets.

Bellini admits that he has overindulged to a far greater extent:

"One of the craziest things I have ever did was spend €1,000 on a single album."

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Gianni Bellini in his office where he does most of his card purchasing

Its condition is what makes an album valuable, according to Bellini

"The thing that makes an album valuable is its state of storage," he says. "An album should be perfectly kept and ideally without stickers attached. In most cases however, stickers are already attached."

Mexico 70: the holy grail

The holy grail for sticker collectors is a completed edition of the 1970 Mexico World Cup Panini sticker album.

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A half-completed copy can go for as much as £1,500 on eBay, while the cheapest available price for a 100% complete album is £3,324.99.

Even single stickers are listed on the marketplace.

"The favourite album is always the one that you expect will arrive tomorrow"

A Peter Bonnetti sticker will set you back £15 and a copy of El Salvador's Juan Ramon Martinez will cost you at least £5 - the equivalent of ten packs today.

Bellini is a proud owner of a 1970 album.

"My favourite album is a Panini one. Mexico 70.

"I consider it a unique and rare piece that is not easy to find complete."

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Despite claiming Mexico 1970 was his favourite sticker album, Bellini concedes that the next album you purchase is always the one that you treasure the most.

"What I really believe is that the favourite album is always the one that you expect will arrive tomorrow, because it is always a great surprise and joy to open a box containing a new album."

Gianni Bellini presents former Inter Milan striker Roberto Boninsegna with a "maxi-sticker"

Gianni Bellini has become something of a celebrity in the sticker collecting world.

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He is often invited to the launches of various collections, where he's been lucky enough to meet various famous sporting figures.

"One of the funniest aspects of my hobby is that I have the pleasure to know great football players.

"I had the pleasure to meet the likes of Gianni Rivera, Roberto Boninsegna, and the 1982 World Cup winner Giancarlo Antognoni."

Six of Gianni Bellini's albums on display

Bellini is incredibly passionate about his hobby. Asked if he thought there was a chance that sticker collecting might die out in the digital age, Bellini is steadfast.

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"I believe that this is a hobby that will never end. There's the pleasure felt when opening a packet, the smell of the stickers, the social relationship, the children that become friends in exchanging stickers.

"As I always say, stickers are culture, not just a sport."

A version of this article was originally published on our sister site