One-passion man: a conversation with Vladimir Falin, the football collector

Football becomes history, and a childhood fling may become a passion for life.  welcome2018.com talks to a St. Petersburg collector of football paraphernalia, whose collection numbers close to a hundred thousand items.
Share 16 March 2016
Aleksander Demyanchuk/ТАSS
Collector Vladimir Falin

The “herbarium,” water circulation, and other effects of the collecting bug

I was 15 when I somehow chanced upon an informal phaleristic meet in Karl Marx Park. That’s where Vyborgskaya Metro station is now. I was overwhelmed by the immeasurable quantity of pins of every description on various subjects, including football. I bought a “Golden Goddess” pin commemorating the 1970 World Cup. Its face value was 16 kopecks, but I had to pay 30, sacrificing the price of two ice-cream cones. That’s how I caught the collecting bug, and the focus of my collection was now set: I would collect everything related to football.

I entered my professional collecting phase, which includes swapping, correspondence with like-minded people, and organization of items, at the end of the 1960s. Before that, as a boy, I would go to football stadiums and buy game programmes. If I didn’t make it or didn’t have any money, I would walk around the stalls, grabbing programmes left behind by spectators, who had used them to line their seats for warmth. I picked up the cleaner ones.

I kept up correspondence with a hundred cities across the USSR to find items for my collection. That occupied five or six hours a day of my time. I had a national security-sensitive job at the time, so I was prohibited from corresponding with people in the west. I wrote to people in Warsaw Pact members Bulgaria and East Germany, but even that was frowned upon. The operatives at First Department, who oversaw the integrity of Soviet national security data, were constantly on my case.  

My correspondence with other victims of the collecting bug, like myself, was akin to the water circulation cycle in nature. For example, I really needed some item from Dushanbe, Tajikistan. I knew there was this guy, a collector, in Tajikistan, who had what I wanted and, according to my information, wanted something a good friend of mine had on swap offer in Perm. But the guy in Perm would want something in exchange from me. In the end, a complicated swap would take place, which took a pretty long time. Those of us who lived in the Soviet Union remember how long letters took to get from one town to another. Further complications would arise if one of the parties to the proposed swap was not satisfied with the counter-offer, and a compromise had to be worked out. It was a long and tedious process, but when your collection ended up augmented with a new item, you felt happy.

I consider myself very fortunate to have enjoyed the privilege of being around all these people who share my passion. It is a gift to me from my 50 years of collecting. Sometimes I would come to a phaleristic meet, and some pin collector, who didn’t care at all for football, would suddenly remember that his grandfather had been a football fan, and there is a stack of old game programmes gathering dust somewhere in the corner at his place. The stuff would prove worthless in 99 cases out of 100. But sometimes I would get lucky, and lay my hands on some old programmes from pre-war football matches played in Leningrad. Those programmes, having survived the siege of Leningrad, were rare and precious.   

At the end of the 1980s, collectors’ addresses were printed on football programmes in different Soviet cities. This fan from Tbilisi, who was not a collector himself, got my information from a programme and sent me upwards of a hundred programmes for those football matches where Georgian teams had played, all printed in the mid-20th century. Today, many years on, I still feel grateful to that man, whom I never met and whose name I no longer remember. The stuff he sent me wasn’t so valuable for a collector; only a few programmes deserved a place in my collection. It was his generosity and kindness that mattered, and I’ll never forget it. It means so much more than a lucky online purchase.  

I received help from people who did not themselves care a bit about collecting. Much of that help was in organizing my “herbarium.” They realized what a struggle it was to carry that millstone on my own, and they knew I didn’t do it for profit or out of ambition.

Programmes for games that were never played, and other rarities

I have made every effort, and I’ve had to beg, steal or borrow to procure all programmes pertaining to our national team. The Russia, then USSR, then again Russia national football team has played 651 official games since 1912. For some games, programmes were never printed. My collection misses only four programmes for official Soviet national team games, which have a credible record of having been actually played. The whole Russian period is fully covered. For the Russian national team, I make sure I place a ticket for the same match next to the programme. Where no programme was printed, the ticket is all the evidence I have. 

All collectors specializing in the Soviet national team know that the official programme of the 1962 World Cup Chile is the most rare and expensive one. It took me a long time to track one down. It’s seldom auctioned, and it costs a bundle. I had to get one eventually, no matter what the price was, just to fill the gap in my collection.

I have no World Cup programmes from before 1958 in my collection. 1958 was the first year when the Soviet Union took part, so anything prior to that is irrelevant for me – has been so far. Maybe it will not remain irrelevant forever. As for the tournaments where the Soviet or Russian national team played, I think I have them all covered. The Soviet team played its debut World Cup in Sweden in 1958. I have no gray spots in my collection since that World Cup. Even those tournaments which our team had tried to, but couldn’t make, failing the draw, I have mostly or fully covered.

The Chilean Football Federation printed a programme for the 1974 World Cup playoffs, which is now a huge rarity. Teams from Europe and South America contested 16 placements in the World Cup finals. The Chileans printed one programme for two games. The first one was played in Moscow a few days after the Chilean coup d’état, and was shrouded in secrecy. It ended in a tie, 0-0. The prospect of a return match in Chile did not augur well for the Soviet team. The party leaders and sports administrators decided to play it safe, and did not send the team to Santiago. The Soviet team was slapped with a “technical defeat.” No individual programme had been printed for the game, which was never played, but the programme that had covered both games was already in circulation.

The first official programme covering the whole tournament was printed in Italy for World Cup 1934. World Cup hosts routinely print their event programmes in several languages, but whenever they change or add languages, they create extra problems for collectors. In addition to English, Spanish, French and German, Spain printed the official programme in Arabic for the 1982 World Cup, which it hosted, because the Kuwait team took part. This practice has since continued. For the 2014 World Cup, the official programme was printed in English, Spanish and Portuguese. No World Cup programme has ever been printed in Russian. The programme for World Cup 2018 will be the first one.  

Programmes for games that never happened are in a league by themselves. Few will remember the Euro 1960 quarter final, which, according to the draw, was to be played by the USSR and Spain. General Franco would not let his team go to Moscow for fear that they might lose, and the good name of Spanish football would be tarnished. That game was never played, but the programme had been released in over 100,000 copies. Officially, the whole print run was shredded, but a few specimens must have been saved – they are pretty hard to find. Khrushchev made a speech, in which he sneered at Gen. Franco for “hitting his own goal.” A World Cup 2014 playoff match was cancelled in Belfast due to bad weather in March 2013. Russian fans remember that cancellation only too well. Naturally, I have the programmes for the match which was never played, and for the rematch played in August that year. Curiously, programmes for the rematch are more difficult to find.

I stayed away from the Olympic theme for a long time, but eventually gave up. The first time Olympic football programmes were printed separately was for the 1948 Olympic Games in London. Before that, Olympic programmes had been printed for all sports together. The voluminous official programme of the 1912 Olympic Games covered all the sports included, so it did mention football. I don’t think it may be rightly regarded as a football programme, but some people would disagree. I have a programme in my collection, which was printed for one of the three friendly matches played by Russia against Britain in St. Petersburg in 1911. Those matches and the matches played in St. Petersburg and Moscow a year prior between those cities’ teams and the Prague club, Corinthians, are not on record with the RFU as official matches of the national team. Surprisingly, the programme was printed in St. Petersburg, which was quite out of character for the then-capital of Russia. Moscow was much more serious about the formal presentation of international football events before 1917.

How football gets on paper: early and rare stamps

When I took to collecting, pins were my focus. I didn’t think I would ever care for stamps. Phaleristic and philatelic meets never overlapped on weekends. They gathered in different parts of town, and you could not make both meets, you had to pick one. In the early 1990s, as an experienced collector, I began wondering about the earliest football themed stamps printed by FIFA member nations and regional football confederation members. I had no idea what I was getting into, and what an investment of time and money would be necessary to answer that question. The question haunted me, and I decided to try and seek out all the early football stamps of all nations. It subsequently transpired that even the tiny Pacific island of Palau, population just over 20,000, had released stamps with portraits of World Cup 1994 stars, including that tournament’s best striker Oleg Salenko. The Island of Montserrat in the West Indies has a population of just over 6,000, yet Montserrat has printed some football postage stamps, too. It was not easy to track down stamps like those. It is not always necessary to buy a super-expensive item in order to “close the theme,” as collectors say. But it may take years to find it, as was the case with a certain Sri Lankan stamp I really wanted, and it would never ever come up on any of the popular online auctions. 

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Uruguay was the first to issue football themed postage stamps in 1924, dedicated to its national team’s win in the Olympic football tournament, in Antwerp. The first-ever stamps dedicated to a World Cup were issued in 1934 in Italy, which hosted the tournament that year. The first Soviet stamps featuring footballer images were issued in 1935, before any football themed stamps appeared in Germany or France. The former Soviet Republics have released some football themed stamps since the Union ceased to exist. On 9 March 1994, Belorussia superimposed this inscription in Belorussian and English on several postage stamps unrelated to football: “1994 World Cup USA.” These stamps are hard to come by. Azerbaijan joined the philatelic football theme a little later that same year, issuing a block and seven colourful stamps, dedicated to the US World Cup, on June 17.

FIFA currently lists 209 national federations, four of them British. Another 20 nations or so are not on FIFA, but are members of their regional confederations. Only 14 nations have, for whatever reason, never printed any football themed postage stamps. Some nations have never printed any postage stamps of their own, or stopped printing them over 70 years ago, when football was not nearly as popular as it is nowadays. One recently independent state, South Sudan, is yet to print its football themed postage stamps. Of all these nations, only Turkmenistan seems to have no excuse for not printing any football themed stamps. This former Soviet republic does print postage stamps, and some of them are devoted to sports, yet none of them celebrate the world’s favourite game.

The unattainable three percent. Collectors and gatherers

My collection of football paraphernalia numbers about one hundred thousand items. The programmes are a small part of it. Any collection, irrespective of the theme, falls into three unequal parts. Let’s say someone decides to put together exactly the same collection as the one sitting in my St. Petersburg apartment. If you are prepared to invest the requisite amount of money and you play your cards right, you can get 90 percent of the collection together in about five years. You’ll need 15 to 20 years to procure another seven percent, which, incidentally, will cost you a lot more than the initial 90%. The remaining three percent will remain unattainable forever. The merit of a collection is, first and foremost, judged on those three percent, then it is judged on the other seven percent. The rest is, as collectors say, just “froth,” but no collection is complete without it, either. But the people we call “gatherers” – and they are a legion! - are of a different opinion.

 “Gatherer” is not a disparaging appellation. In fact, gatherers get more of a “kick” from their brand of collecting. Football collectors are very much like professional footballers: their work requires utmost concentration to be successful. Gatherers, on the other hand, are happy to have a fraction of the “froth,” no matter how small. A routine acquisition is not much fun for the collector.  

The future of the collection

In essence, my collection is exhibition-ready material, and I hope other collectors will not be the only group of people interested. Everything is properly organized and supplied with background information in Russian and English, unlike the local football museums in Brazil, where visitors have to make do with information in Portuguese only.   

My collection has educational value. Indeed, there are many member nations in FIFA and/or the six regional confederations, which many people never knew existed. I’ve met a few university graduates in geography who’ve made unexpected geographical discoveries perusing my collection. In fact, it’s a tailored exhibition for World Cup visitors, when they come to St. Petersburg. If I could find a venue for my show, minimal time would be needed to set up, deploy the necessary security precautions, and advertise.