Google ‘football stickers’ and before long you’ll encounter a middle-aged Panini obsessive blogging about his love for the famous adhesive trading cards and the all-consuming regret he feels at the absence of Honduran midfielder Hector Zelaya from his otherwise complete Espana ’82 set. Well, it’s the kind of thing that nags at you as you age.
Type ‘ultras stickers’ into a search engine and you head down a very different rabbit hole, one where every Instagramed lamp-post, bus shelter and street sign is plastered with squares, rectangles and circles, each serving up a feast of bold graphics, bastardised pop culture motifs, arcane terrace references and, of course, strident views about rivals.
For some people this street litter is just low-level vandalism. To other eyes – mine certainly, and hopefully yours – it’s something different, a kind of folk art every bit as vital and vibrant as the sort produced on walls and trains with spray cans and stencils. At their best, these limited edition stickers are like mini-Banksys, deserving of study and critical appreciation. For football nerds they’re also fascinating snapshots of terrace culture, each ‘tag’ referencing a different team or fan grouping.
So where do they come from? Well you can buy them off the peg, though I think that’s cheating. Websites such as Redbubble offer ready-made ones, mostly for the ‘brand’ clubs such as Liverpool, Barcelona, Arsenal or Real Madrid but in design they stick to what might you might call the vanilla end of the flavour spectrum. Nothing too spicy or inventive. Other sites such as Terrace Shop and Casuals Attire sell generic stickers for a decent selection of smaller clubs running from Arbroath to Yeovil Town, with stops at Greenock Morton and even Edinburgh City along the way. You’ll pay £1.99 for a pack of 25.
But the best ones are self-generated, created using either hand-drawn images or photo-collages (or a mixture of both) and uploaded to one of the many websites that prints stickers in runs of hundreds or thousands. And it’s from those secretive beginnings that they find their way out into the real world.
Look around you and you realise they’re everywhere, with the density increasing the closer you go to a football ground or transport hub. And once you start seeing them, you can’t stop. I know, I’ve tried. Now I just give in to the urge to document and whip out my phone to snap them for posterity – before someone tries to pick them off, or the next home game covers them up with others. Or before the weather takes its inevitable toll and they turn to ghostly, barely-there images with faded outlines that become even harder to decode than they already are.
The ones that survive wind, rain and fingernails become like old friends. I pass by and check in on them from time to time, noting how the colours degrade – memo to Celtic fans: your green turns to blue with prolonged exposure to light – and enjoying their stately deterioration from pristine to distressed.
There’s a Hearts sticker I particularly like, a riff on the poster for Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, but so picked at that only an eye and a bit of bowler hat can still be seen. The same image has been co-opted by fans of other teams too, as has the bold red, white and blue ‘target and arrow’ design favoured by The Who and by generations of Mods ever since. I’ve seen it used on stickers for both Hibs and Rangers. Other fan favourites include the old British Rail logo, accompanied by a club name and the words ‘on tour’. You can buy ready-made versions of these for most clubs.
What’s more intriguing is the way foreign stickers find their way into the Scottish footballing ecosystem. If these were migrating birds you’d just say they’d become confused and taken a wrong turn at Broughty Ferry. But these aren’t birds, so there’s no other way to explain the presence on an Edinburgh street of a sticker promoting, say, French third division side Stade Lavallois Mayenne than to conclude that one of its Diablos 53 ultras crew was visiting the area and thought to commemorate the visit with a sticker. Or six.
The same goes for the supporters of all those other obscure clubs whose stickers I’ve found on my wanderings around Edinburgh and Glasgow. Like Polish third division side Motor Lublin or their compatriots Hutnik Nowa Huta, Krakow’s answer to Partick Thistle courtesy of their being the city’s third biggest team. Unlike the Jags, they’re currently in Poland’s fifth tier, however.
Or how about Virtus Verona, also a third team, this time in the Italian city of Verona? They’re currently in Serie D and their chairman, Luigi Fresco, is also their manager. He has held the post for a whopping 33 years. I’d never have known that unless I’d spotted the sticker.
Finally there’s Spanish second division side CF Reus Deportiu, slightly overshadowed in the world of Catalan football by Barcelona and Espanyol, but making up for it with massive stickers bigging up their Redblacks fan grouping. And how can you not love a team whose nickname is The Clockwork Hazelnut?
Of course there’s a darker side too. The appeal of the stickers lies as much in the medium as in the message, but the message does matter. Every lamp-post is a potential soap box and every bus stop a pulpit, so when that message strays from statements of empty bravado or self-aggrandisement to sentiments rooted in bigotry, intolerance, xenophobia or racism, we need to pay attention.
Scotland’s own particular issues do find their way into the world of stickers, sadly, but an even more egregious example came in Italy a couple of months into the 2017-18 season. Fans of Italian Serie A club Lazio printed up stickers of Holocaust victim Anne Frank wearing the shirt of rivals Roma and plastered them all over the Roma end of the Olympic Stadium, the ground in Rome that the two teams share.
Subsequently, 13 Lazio fans were identified as having been behind the hate campaign and handed lifetime stadium bans. Meanwhile the Lazio players were paraded wearing T-shirts saying ‘No to anti-semitism’ and passages from Frank’s diary were read ahead of all Serie A games, by order of the Italian FA. But that didn’t stop the trend, if that’s the right word, moving to Germany, where two sets of similar stickers showed up, one showing Frank in a Schalke 04 top, the other in the colours of Chemie Leipzig, noted for their fans’ left-wing and anti-fascist views.
Are those rare examples? The case made headlines across Europe, so let’s hope so. I’ve certainly seen nothing comparable in Scotland and I trust I never will. But the fear that I might will not stop me looking and documenting. Something tells me I haven’t climbed my last lamp-post, smartphone in hand, for a better look at a Hamilton Accies On Tour sticker or to snap a Sturm Graz Bastion Nord one, half obscured by chewing gum and an invitation to ‘Chant Hare Krishna’.