Alive and sticking

There’s plenty of life in the Panini brand as it celebrates its 60th birthday in 2021.

Politics and religion may top the list as the most divisive topics in conversion but football will always rank highly. Few aspects of the beautiful game find a way to unite supporters – no matter what team you follow or which division it resides in. That was until the ill-fated European Super League came along, of course.

There is another, more established, part of football culture that has unified the fan community for decades – with no sign of letting up. Ladies and gentleman, I give you Panini football stickers!

If you are reading a retro football blog and have never heard of the Modena-founded collectables business you’ve probably take a wrong cyber-turn. Incredibly there are some who feel they are too cool for Panini school…the rest of us know better.

It’s hard to put a finger on exactly what made Panini such a cultural phenomenon in the UK from the time of its mainstream entry into the market in the late 1970s (starting with their Euro Football release). Far easier to say it was down to a number of reasons predicated on a slick operation headquartered in Italy with a UK base in London, at the time (Panini UK now operate out of Tunbridge Wells in Kent).

Think of Panini (at least as far as their iconic UK domestic albums from Football 78 onwards go) and it is hard not to also recall Shoot! magazine, who gave away the album – and packets of stickers – each year.

First Division sticker book 1978

For a brand that was largely unknown in Great Britain up to 1977 (despite the Mexico 70 and München 74 Panini World Cup albums having been sold over here) it was a masterstroke to ensure their albums were instantly placed in the hands of hundreds of thousands of young fans through the pages of the most popular football publication of the age.

There was established competition in the shape of FKS (who produced albums of picture stamps that required gluing into position) and Topps (whose cards replaced those previously manufactured by A & BC). At the time, these two brands seemed to have the football collectables market sewn up but not only did Panini make sure they got their name out there via strong distribution, they also had a superior product. Their self-adhesive stickers – just peel off the backing paper and away you went – meant the time-consuming requirement of the contents of a glue pot was a thing of the past.

It also became clear the album content was far more sophisticated to anything that had gone before. For a start, most of the close-season signings were in their new club’s double-page spread and the latest kits were on display. Rivals card and picture stamp collections had resorted to superimposing heads and painting over kits in an attempt to make the product seem more contemporary – if that was the intention it rarely succeeded. Young supporters deserved better and they got it from Panini.

Knowing a large number of your class-mates also had the latest Panini football album meant for a bit of friendly rivalry in seeing who could finish the album first – though, in truth, pocket money allowances rarely stretched to completion. Not that it really mattered.

England. Espana 82 World Cup

Most of the joy garnered from Panini stickers came through the opening of packets and discovering the contents – would there be a ‘shiny’ or a player from your favourite club? As long as there were more ‘needs’ than ‘gots’ it had been a successful trip to the local newsagent.    

Then there was the playground swapping – a process that sorted out the men/women from the boys/girls. Were you a one shiny for two ‘normal’ sticker negotiator or did you drive a harder bargain? Three? Five? 10?

A lot of harsh lessons were learned through swapping Panini stickers – many have struggled to recover from the time they had to give up 20 of their doubles for a Sheffield Wednesday team group and a Mick Harford. Others, meanwhile, still regale friends several decades later about their finest sticker swapping chicanery.  Similarly, recurring Arthur Albistons or elusive St Mirren badges haunt collectors into their dotage – all bearing testament to the longevity of Panini stickers.

Growing up in the 1980s as a young football fan may have had many downsides – the hooligan element meant few parents felt comfortable in taking their offspring to games, evidenced by the alarming decline in attendance figures by the middle of the decade.

There wasn’t a lot of television coverage by today’s standards but radio broadcasts and teletext helped to fill in the blanks. Publications such as Shoot!, Match Weekly, Roy of the Rovers and many others were crucial in sustaining a love for the game and sating the thirst for knowledge.

Yet much of that initial love affair was underpinned for many through Panini football sticker albums – domestic, World Cup and Euro releases – and the community spirit among fellow collectors.  Many of them have now returned to the fold over the last 10-15 years – kickstarted by the Germany 2006 World Cup album. The Brasil 2014 album began the trend for supermarkets and newsagents giving away free albums – a devious way to entice lapsed addicts into reviving their habit. Where once there was a reliance on the generosity of a parent for a packet or two every few days, now it is more likely to be purchases of one or two boxes.

A Diego Maradona sticker from the Panini Calciatori (Italian domestic football) 1979-80 album was sold at auction in April 2021 for $555,000.

In many ways the sports collectables landscape has changed in recent times but the wholesome nature of buying, sticking and swapping football stickers endures. The smell of the packets, the anticipation as you rip them open, the joy or despair at what lies beneath.

VW Beetle covered in Panini stickers

In a football sense – it’s hard to beat. 

Written by Greg Lansdowne @Panini_book and author of ‘Stuck On You

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