There are few purer ways to waste money than Panini sticker albums. Devoid of free gum or trading-card game status or any kind of real-world use they represent the collector impulse at its simplest. According to the website there is not even the complication of limited edition or deliberately rare stickers in a Panini collection. It’s a mathematical problem: given a pool of collectors n, fair and unweighted trading, and stickers produced in equal proportions, what is the minimum amount each need spend on 5-sticker packets for all to complete a 300-sticker collection?

In the real world of course trading stickers is decidedly unfair – woe betide the boy whose got – got – need – got – need chant was interrupted by a gasp or “wow”. Trades though were only part of the joy of Panini – what came back to me most strongly when I bought their Euro 2004 album on Friday was the private pleasure of sticker collection.

I was a bit nervous about buying the thing – for one thing it is plainly and obviously not something an adult ‘should’ be doing. I stuffed it in my bag quickly, keeping out my cover purchase – the much more respectable Word magazine. But even beyond that there was the risk that sitting down with album and stickers would give me the same slightly embarrassed, hollow feeling that you get when you play a rubbish old Spectrum game on an emulator. When I opened the first packet and held the tiny stickers clumsily in my suddenly giant hands my fears seem well-founded.

But then gradually the memories came back. I was into football stickers before I was into football, and part of the thrill was of getting a player I’d actually heard of. The predominance of Latvians in the stickers I’d bought this time made this an easy pleasure to recover – step forward, Dietmar Hamann. And then step forward again – my first swapsie. Then came the second pack and I was slipping into an old ritual – pull the bunched stickers out, quickly flick through for a foil one and put it to the back if found, trying not to look at it. Then the click of nail against edge, and the unpeeling, and the satisfying pile of discarded backings. The careful placement, especially of the two-part team stickers. Tucking the swaps into the back of the album and lastly a flick through, admiring completed rows, sighing over pages lacking a single sticker.

Some things have changed – there are less stickers on most pages, it seems to me, and the neat, formal rows have been replaced with more fluid and colourful placings. The stadium stickers have gone – a shame – but the dubious practise of making lesser teams cram their players on two to a sticker (always something the African teams at the World Cup fell victim to) has been abandoned too. Panini’s lock on the market is gone too – all my local newsagents have Merlin’s even smaller stickers with their nasty free bubblegum; I can only get the Paninis in Smith’s. But the most satisfying aspect of collecting remains – the wonderful weight and thickness of pages as the album inches to completion.

(Several FT staff members are collecting Euro 2004 stickers – readers are urged to write in for potential swaps.)