Panini's football stickers for women's World Cup prove to be a sellout

First female range an unexpected success in host nation Germany, with demand forcing Italian firm to rush to print more

To find out whether women's football is finally going mainstream, Fifa could commission a focus group. Or it could pay for an opinion poll, phoning 1,000 people to see how many can name a female player.

But if officials want a simpler sign of a growing interest in women and the beautiful game, they could just head to a German school playground and see what the children are swapping at breaktime: stickers featuring players taking part in the forthcoming women's World Cup.

According to sales figures from manufacturers Panini, 4.5m packets of stickers featuring the world's best female players have been snapped up since they went on the market a fortnight ago. The range has proved so (unexpectedly) popular that the Italian firm has had to rush to print a million more, according to a spokeswoman.

"The collection was indeed a gamble," said Christine Fröhler from Panini, in Stuttgart. "But the feedback we have got from the market shows that it paid off."

The stickers and accompanying album are only available in Germany, which will host the tournament from 26 June. This is the first time Panini has covered the women's World Cup, which has been running since 1991, and the first time it has produced a range for any international women's sport.

The time was optimal, said Fröhler. "If not now, then when? With Germany as the host country and a very strong German team, it seemed the perfect opportunity for a women's World Cup sticker collection," she said.

It's a sign of the times, said Jens Kirschneck, managing editor of the German football magazine 11 Freunde – and its female spin-off, 11 Freundinnen. "Not long ago, perhaps eight years ago, it would be unimaginable that Panini could sell so many women's football stickers."

Niels Barnhofer, media officer for the German national team, current women's world champions, said the home squad were feverishly collecting the stickers themselves. "Our players are very eager to collect the whole lot," he said. "They are big collectors and exchanging them has become a big thing among the team. They all want full albums, but it's difficult to get new cards at the moment because all the shops have sold out."

The €2 scrapbook contains more than 40 pages featuring 17 players from each of the 16 teams. There are already dozens of online swap shops (Tauschbörse) for fans desperately trying to find missing numbers.

Particularly popular players include Birgit Prinz, Germany's star striker, and Marta, the Brazilian forward, who is the five-time winner of the Fifa's Women's World Player of the Year award. "Any of the glittery stickers are also popular," said Fröhler.

The album is currently being offered for more than three times its cover price on Amazon Marketplace in Germany. The book and stickers look pretty much the same as their male-dominated counterparts, with one key difference: the women's stickers do not list the players' weight. "It's simply more charming like that," said Fröhler. Otherwise, it's business as usual: birthplace, date of birth, height and home team.

Panini admits it had some difficulty researching the album because of the low profile of most players. There are some missing statistics and an editing error meant that one North Korean player was mistakenly included twice.

Even if all 5.5m packets are sold, sales will fall far short of the male version for last year's World Cup in South Africa when 90m packets were snapped up in Germany alone; during the World Cup in 2006, also in Germany, 160m flew off the shelves.

"I'm not sure this is the start of a new era," said Kirschneck. "I don't think I would take this as an indication that come autumn, there will be twice as many spectators in the stands for women's Bundesliga games. But I do think it's a good sign that the event will be a success."

Women have long played football in Germany, but the recent success of the national team – they have won the World Cup twice – has seen more and more taking up the sport. In 2004-05 there were 860,000 female players in the German football federation, now there are 1,020,000. Nothing can match the United States, where more than 7.2 million girls regularly play, only marginally lower than the number of boys.

Though ticket sales for this year's tournament, starting on 26 June, are going well, 25% (230,000) remain unsold. "We're well on the way to reaching our goal of selling 80% of tickets in advance," said Steffi Jones, president of the German bid.

• This article was amended on 17 June 2011. The original said Christine Frölicher from Panini. This has been corrected.


Helen Pidd in Berlin

The GuardianTramp

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