Peruse the showcases during any card show and you’ll notice the usual array of sought-after cards staring back at you from under the glass. There are cards of sports legends, like Michael Jordan’s 1986 Fleer rookie and Mike Trout’s 2011 Topps rookie.
But other non-traditional sports heroes are also making collectors’ must-have lists these days. Formula One cards have seen a sharp uptick as international auto racing has become a bigger deal in the United States. Tennis and golf cards have also grown in popularity.
But the cards from outside the traditional top four North American sports that have gained notable visibility are those of soccer players.
“All cards in general have increased in popularity over the past three to five years. Soccer cards are no different,” said Matt Powers, who sells autographs and sports cards through Missouri-based Powers Sports Memorabilia. “What makes them unique is soccer is the world’s number one most popular sport and has some of the biggest superstars in all of sports. The growth potential for the market is much greater than other growing sports.”
It is even greater given that the World Cup will be contested in Qatar starting in November. Soccer cards, like the game itself, have never been so popular across North America.
For decades, baseball cards led the way, reflecting the tastes of most fans for the National Pastime. More recently, basketball and football have become increasingly popular. This year, however, soccer cards are poised to become one of the most popular among collectors as fans await the World Cup.
“The 2022 World Cup is going to be the first one during the new craze of sports cards,” Powers said. “The buzz around the winning team is going to be insane, especially if it involves a major superstar such as Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi or Kylian Mbappe.”
The United States and Canada, two places where the soccer card market has seen a boom since the pandemic, are in the World Cup together for the very first time since the tournament’s inception in 1930. In fact, soccer cards saw the most growth of any sports card category in 2020, growing 1,600 percent compared to the previous year, according to eBay sales. The pandemic and an increase in soccer card sets ignited the explosion and their values. The game’s international popularity — something that also has helped basketball cards — is another reason for this newfound surge.
“Soccer cards were grossly undervalued pre-2020. The growth in soccer cards was part market correction, people realizing how small the print runs were and the potential of a truly world market,” said Martijn Huijbers, who runs BuySoccerCards.com. “The World Cup will create new stars for soccer card collectors to buy, sell and trade.”
Further fueling the market is the growth of shows in Europe such as the London Card Show, the biggest hobby confab in Great Britain. Soccer cards have dominated such shows, and with it demand. As a result, many in the United States have gotten a quick education regarding the soccer card market over the last few years. Soccer is the world’s most popular sport and therefore the demand for cards has grown expediently not just in the United States, but in Europe, South America and Asia.
Soccer cards were a niche collectable within the broader hobby with Futera and Leaf producing cards. It was in 2014, decades after soccer stickers dominated the soccer collectables market, that Panini released a World Cup Prizm set. It was the first licensed World Cup card product released in the United States and it has grown in value.
Starting in 2015, soccer sets were released with regularity by Topps as well as Panini under the Donruss and Select name.
Soccer, unlike other sports, never experienced a Junk Wax era. Instead, collectors have to navigate through a hodgepodge of sets, many of them defunct, if they’re interested in buying cards of legends such as Pele and Diego Maradona, arguably two of the greatest soccer players of the 20th century. The challenges don’t end there. Issues such as what is considered a rookie card, why collectors often go after stickers (and not cards) and what sets to watch for this year continue to dumbfound collectors.
DEFINING SOCCER ROOKIE CARDS
What defines a rookie card in soccer can be very difficult to assess. Panini hasn’t consistently placed “RC” designations on cards (they have in more recent years) so collectors and dealers have had to figure out which card the player first appeared on and chase that one.
It’s the case with the Mbappe rookie card, which can be found in several sets. The one of him in a France jersey was part of the much-sought 2018 Panini Prizm World Cup set. It doesn’t have a “RC” designation, but is considered by those in the hobby as the rookie card of him to collect.
Mbappe, who will play for France at the upcoming World Cup and helped his nation win the title four years ago, has other rookie cards worth going after. His 2017-18 Topps Chrome UEFA Champions League card, and its variety of different refractors, have seen increased value since the World Cup four years ago.
Mbappe’s card with the “RC” designation is the 2018 Panini annual Father’s Day promotion card #/399, a beautiful card that explodes with color. It remains on many want-lists, but their rarity makes them hard to find and very expensive when they do pop up at card shows or eBay.
Messi and Ronaldo, however, remain the world’s two best players and gobble up the largest share of the market when it comes to interest. Finding rookie cards for these two players can be difficult for American collectors because they are found in sets not sold in North America.
Messi’s rookie can be found in the 2004 Panini Mega Cracks set sold in Spain, while Ronaldo’s is in 2003 Panini Sports Mega Craques.
Prices for these two cards vary, but a PSA 10 grade of the Messi card can sell for upwards of $250,000. The MINT25 Auction by Lelands sold a Gem Mint 10 version for $304,770 this past January.
It should be noted that there isn’t a draft when it comes to the game outside of Major League Soccer. That means rookie players are hard to come by, although expanded rosters during COVID-19 in the 2020-21 season allowed for young players such as Jude Bellingham, who plays for Borussia Dortmund in Germany, and Pedri at Barcelona to burst onto the scene.
PLAYERS AND SETS TO OWN
Giving the sport more momentum in North America is that the U.S. will co-host the World Cup in 2026 along with Canada and Mexico. The next two World Cups will keep interest in soccer very much alive this winter and over the next four years. Should the United States go deep at the World Cup this fall, expect that to drive interest in American players and their cards.
There are a growing number of American players who are now members of some of Europe’s biggest clubs and competing in the UEFA Champions League, such as Christian Pulisic at Premier League club Chelsea, Gio Reyna at German club Borussia Dortmund and Weston McKennie at Italian powerhouse Juventus. Huijbers said American players are also worth collecting given how many of them now play for top European clubs.
“The last 10 years, the level of U.S. soccer has steadily grown, which currently reflects in the soccer card market,” he added.
Pulisic rookies are in demand. His 2016 Panini “Donruss Debuts” card is considered one of those cards collectors want, especially after he helped Chelsea win the Champions League last year. Many consider this card to be Pulisic’s rookie and prices for it have risen, especially for graded parallels in gold, holo or purple.
In addition, another first-year card that has seen interest is Pulisic’s 2016-17 Select card featuring him in a U.S. jersey.
But rookie cards aren’t the only ones people want. Pulisic cards in general — especially short-printed inserts and autographs — have also sold well. That includes his 2018 Eminence Banner Signature card #/10 and 2021 Panini Immaculate Octane Signatures.
Former MLS players succeeding in Europe often means their rookie cards can be found in Topps sets. Alphonso Davies, who represents Canada and played for the Vancouver Whitecaps, has become one of the best left backs in the world at Bayern Munich. His rookie card can be found in the 2018 Topps Stadium Club set. Former New York Red Bulls midfielder Tyler Adams, now with RB Leipzig in Germany, has his rookie card in the same set.
Women’s soccer, meanwhile, remains very popular among American collectors. A two-time FIFA Women’s World Cup champion and two-time Olympic gold medalist, Mia Hamm remains very popular even though she retired in 2004. Hamm’s rookie — a 1992 Sports Illustrated for Kids card — set the record for the most expensive trading card ever for a female athlete. The card, sold for $34,440 in Goldin Auction’s June 2021 Premium Card and Memorabilia Auction.
VINTAGE OFTEN MEANS STICKERS
What about the game’s greats like Pele and Maradona? Do they have rookie cards?
Good questions that aren’t so easy to unravel given the plethora of sets that have emerged over the years. Those players were around at a time that predated the boom in soccer cards. They played at a time when Panini stickers featuring their likeness were all the rage in Europe and South America.
Stickers are still a thing, but they are largely affixed to albums and have been produced by Panini on the World Cup level since the 1970 tournament in Mexico in large quantities. Panini, based in Italy, printed stickers throughout the 1960s focused on the Italian first division. Panini was founded in 1961 by brothers Giuseppe and Benito Panini in the Italian city of Modena, where the company is still headquartered.
Starting in 1970, Panini began publishing an album for the World Cup in Mexico that year using multilingual captions and selling stickers outside of Italy for the first time. The move initiated a global craze every four years that persists. The Mexico ‘70 album remains a hot item. In 2017, a completed album — featuring Pelé’s autograph — sold for $14,500. Panini expert Wouter Waaijers noted that the “value of old Panini albums increases every two years during the European Cup and World Cup.”
“This is not only the case for old albums, but also for European and World Cups from more recent years,” he added. “In America, sport trading cards have been generating money for some time now, but the trend is now also visible in Europe.”
The classic stickers today are complemented by collectible cards. In 2009, Panini signed an exclusive agreement with late Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant to make him the official company spokesman and global trading card ambassador. Bryant’s affiliation with Panini went back to his time growing up in Italy, where he collected Series A stickers. The 2018 World Cup album, featuring 682 stickers to complete, was available in both print and digital versions.
Vintage cards have also seen increased value. Last February, a Pele rookie card broke the record for soccer when fractional ownership company Rally finalized the sale of a 1958 Alifabologet No. 635 PSA 9 rookie card for $1.33 million, the first soccer card to cross the $1 million threshold. The same card, only six of which have been graded a 9 or better by PSA, sold for $288,000 in 2020 through Goldin Auctions, while a PSA 8.5 netted $372,000 at Heritage Auctions in May.
“Soccer has gotten a lot of attention recently and this particular card has broken the record of ‘most expensive soccer card’ a couple of times,” Rob Petrozzo, chief product officer and co-founder of Rally, told ESPN following the sale. “It was issued during the 1958 World Cup campaign, the true Pele rookie, none graded higher: It’s kind of a holy grail for cards.”