Understanding the Beautiful Game of Collecting Soccer Memorabilia

By: Dan Mobbs

The ball’s a different shape, the posts are a lot smaller, the game’s more theatrical and matches can potentially end in a tie. That’s right, it’s the other “football” – or soccer as it’s widely known in North America. The game played the world over has an audience to match, so there’s understandably a great demand for authentic vintage soccer memorabilia, which can fetch hundreds of thousands of dollars at auction. 

US soccer team at Bonn

US soccer team at Bonn (Image via picryl).

It was former England international and DC United player, Wayne Rooney who said: “I love football. Football is my life” and judging by the passion of fans and the prices they’re willing to pay for soccer memorabilia, the game is life for many fans and collectors worldwide too. 

And, as with baseball, football, and basketball, soccer fans are willing to put their money where their mouthes are when it comes to winner’s medals, trophies, and match-worn shirts. On occasion, these figures can even reach into the millions, as was proved when Mario Götze, the scorer of the winning goal at the 2014 World Cup Final, auctioned off his left boot (not even a pair!) for the German charity A Heart for Children, raising an astonishing €2m. 

This proved to be the most expensive soccer-related item to sell at auction to date and it’s in rarefied company. And it seems that the World Cup is one tournament that has equal appeal to fans and collectors alike.  

World Cup Soccer Memorabilia

It happens once every four years and will end in crushing disappointment for most fans, unless they happen to hail from Brazil or Germany. As thoughts of what might have been fade, memorabilia from World Cups does the opposite; certain items shine brighter and brighter as time passes and increase in value year upon year. 

Take the scorer of the winning goal in the 1966 World Cup, Geoff Hurst, and his match-worn shirt. The shirt he wore on the day when he scored three to help England to a 4-2 win over West Germany was auctioned off to a private bidder for £91,750 in 2000, but when it appeared again in 2012 it sold for a whopping £2.3 million.

There’s money in old soccer shirts, and dirt and sweat are signs of authenticity. At least that’s the case for Bobby’s Moore’s 1970 shirt from England’s World Cup game against Brazil in Mexico. It sold for £59,750 at Christie’s in 2004. This shirt demonstrates the value an occasion can add to a shirt; without the World Cup the shirt would be worth a fraction of the value. For example, a (clean) match-worn shirt from the same year against Northern Ireland sold for £2,800 in 2017. 

It’s the trophy and winner’s medal that’s the real prize though. It’s the same for players, managers and fans. So, it’s perhaps no surprise that when they appear at auction the figures involved are impressive. That’s the case for a 1966 World Cup winner’s medal that sold for £164,800 at Christie’s in 2005 (pictured below). In fact, medals from 1966 are particularly popular, especially with English fans as they won that tournament, while another 1966 winner’s medal was sold for £136,000 in 2014.

Ordinarily, it might be assumed that the more vintage the medal, the greater the price. In fact, this isn’t the case here, as Jose Andrade’s gold winner’s medal for Uruguay from the inaugural FIFA World Cup in 1930 sold for £60,000 in 2016 (pictured below). Eight years earlier, a medal from the same tournament sold for a comparative bargain of £28,800. 

British football

Famed for their warm beer, wet weather, and hooliganism, British football has a rich heritage. This heritage dates back to the 1800s, where the game grew roots as an increasingly popular sport in the northern steel-producing town of Sheffield; a manufacturing equivalent of Pittsburgh.

And it was in Sheffield that the rules of the game were laid out over 150 years ago in 1863. The rules are a holy grail item for many super fans. It’s one of the oldest existing soccer texts in Europe, containing the first ever description of the rules of the game, which still form the basis of soccer today. Its value to the game and to fans is also matched by its financial value, as it was sold at Sotheby’s for £881,250 in 2011 to help raise money for Sheffield FC; the world’s oldest recognized soccer club.  

 

Gordon Banks's England 1970 cap.

Gordon Banks’s England 1970 cap. Sold for £22,000 via Graham Budd Auctions (Nov 2014).

Tradition and heritage are big selling points for collectors. One such tradition in British soccer is that each player is given a cap each time they represent England, and over the years these caps have become highly sought after. One such cap was given to former England goalkeeper Gordon Banks in 1970. It sold for £22,000 in 2014. But depending on the player and the occasion, they can be picked up for as little as £600

If this proves to be too much of a distinctive fashion statement, heritage shirts are as popular as ever and can trade in the tens of thousands of dollars. Liverpool (home of The Beatles) shirts usually have an appreciative audience due to their broad fan base, as do those from Manchester United and Arsenal. One example is Alf Baker’s match-worn red Arsenal jersey from the 1930 FA Cup Final, which sold for £26,000 in December 2021. 

If this is a little beyond your budget, or you’re unsure where to start then perhaps look up a favourite historical player and see if you can’t find a historical treasure. Former Manchester United and LA Aztecs star, George Best might be a good place to start thanks to his ability on the pitch and carousing lifestyle. At one end of the scale, a match worn Northern Ireland jersey doubled its estimate, selling for £22,000, but a signed reproduction Northern Ireland shirt sold for a mere £75 in 2013. 

Cards, Stickers, and Programs

Programs form a large part of the British match-day experience. Along with a pre-match pint, a pie of dubious quality and shouting at the referee, programmes are a quintessential part of the cultural experience, but also provide surprisingly cheap entry into collecting soccer memorabilia. 

Admittedly, rarer items dating back to the 1880s can stretch into the thousands of pounds or dollars, while pre-World War II cup final editions can sell for between £100 and £3,500, and pre-World War I programmes can achieve even higher prices, thanks to their scarcity.  

If that’s still a little beyond your budget then interestingly, the 1966 World Cup Final programme only sells for around £75, even if it’s signed by six players. Or, if you’re a fan of Arsenal, Manchester United, Liverpool or any of the other big clubs then post-war editions from the 1950s are available in bundles for around £10 and provide a starting point for a collection, as well as a fascinating snapshot of time.

Alternatively, trading cards can be a good entry-level start to your collection. While they don’t hold quite the same value as football cards, there are a few hidden gems to be found. If you find baby-faced sticker of Brazilians, Ronaldo or Ronaldinho then you could well be sitting on a handsome nest egg. Alternatively, a retro bundle of albums and stickers could provide a tempting start to a collection.

However, collectors are spoilt for choice when it comes to stickers, so highlighting a particular player, era or league will help narrow down any search. With 150 years of soccer memorabilia to choose from though, deciding where to end any collection might be a harder task than deciding where to begin.


About Dan Mobbs

After seeing his first soccer match as a five-year-old, British writer Dan Mobbs fell in love with the beautiful game and he followed his passion into a journalism career that started on the sports desk of a number of London newspapers, before falling under the spell of antiques and collectibles.