The Panini Ghost
The player who's been in three World Cup sticker albums but has never been selected
Life does not always turn out the way you planned. Just look at the numbers. Matthias Sammer, Gianfranco Zola and Phil Neville in 1998. Javier Saviola, Steven Gerrard and Robert Pirès in 2002. David Beckham, Ronaldinho and Michael Ballack in 2010. It happened to all of them. They all featured in a Panini World Cup sticker album but did not participate in the tournament.
Panini has for the last 48 years, since the tournament in Mexico 1970, manufactured, distributed and sold World Cup football stickers worldwide. The Italian company, which hails from Modena, the city of parmesan, has become an influential player in the football market and their World Cup collections are sold by the millions. However, in the process of making the popular stickers errors have occurred due to timing. Panini launch their albums several weeks prior to the tournament. This gives the buyer time to complete their collections before the World Cup begins. The problem is that the stickers are released earlier than the official national team squads are announced, which leaves the manufacturer guessing which players are going to play. And we have not even taken late injuries or suspensions into account yet.
4,895 players appeared in the albums between 1970 and 2014. 685 of them were incorrect predictions – a margin of error of 14%. How would that make a player feel? To be part of a collection but not in the actual squad? And worse, how would you feel if you were represented in two consecutive albums but did not appear in either of those tournaments? Only 21 players in the world have suffered that gruesome fate. Pep Guardiola was one of them (1998 and 2002), Javier Zanetti another (2006 and 2010). We met a third.
Christoffer Andersson is on time. It is in the middle of April in the Swedish capital Stockholm and spring is in the air. A warm night by Scandinavian standards as the temperature measures 11 degrees Celsius. Andersson enters the hotel wearing the black tracksuit of his team, Helsingborgs IF. His handshake is firm and his greeting polite as he sits down in the brown armchair at the heart of the illuminated lobby.
“It is bizarre to be one of these players,” Andersson said. “But to be frank I had the bad luck to be not good enough.”
For the global audience Christoffer Andersson is a nobody. For Swedish football fans, he is somebody. For six years he was part of the national team that qualified for two consecutive World Cups. He has played more than 300 matches in the Swedish top tier and he has represented Helsingborg in both Champions League and the Uefa Cup (yes, a rare feat and a fine achievement by Swedish football standards). Building up to the World Cup in 2002 he participated in seven out of ten qualifying matches and played in eight friendlies. However, he wasn’t picked for the trip to South Korea and Japan.
“I even tried on suits for that tournament and recorded the Swedish World Cup song,” he said. “In the last outing with the team before the final squad was announced we were in a studio together with a rock artist. I guess they cut me out of the video when I wasn’t picked.”
The fact of the matter is that they didn’t. You can still see him juggling with a ball in the music video called “Vi ska till VM” (“We’re going to the World Cup”). “The coaches knew what I could do,” he said. “I was never injured and I could play all over the pitch. For those reasons, they could have picked me. Instead I got the feeling that they preferred potential breakthrough men as the last players in the final squad. I was never one of those.”
And he never was. The same thing occurred two years later, for the Euro 2004, when he was sidelined by his friend Erik Wahlstedt. Andersson had yet again played in the qualifiers but chose to leave Helsingborg in search of more time at his favourite position as wing back. Who replaced him at his former club? Erik Wahlstedt of course.
Third time’s a charm so when it happened in 2006 he could not bear it anymore. After another qualification campaign in which he featured in the last five outings he was turned down at the last minute. In the Swedish paper Sportbladet Andersson said, “Someone had to be sacrificed and it was me. I have been stabbed in the back.”
“I regret lashing out like that,” he said. “I was disappointed but now I understand that they had to decide. And I didn’t cut it. At the time, it was obvious to me that I should play at the World Cup.”
Christoffer Andersson’s experiences with the national team and Hannover 96 taught him that nothing in life is free and that it seldom turns out the way you planned. Nowadays he is assistant coach at the second division outfit Helsingborg, but when he looks back at his career he is happy. “I am probably the person who has played most matches against teams such as Qatar, but it still meant a lot to be part of something bigger,” he said.
“Of course, I would have preferred to play at the World Cup so if my grandchildren find these albums and asks me about them I will lie”, jokes Andersson. “No, actually, I would tell them about this instead. That I was noted for missing two World Cups. A story as good as any!”