Behind-The-Scenes of the Panini Sticker Collecting Craze
When Benito and Giuseppe Panini bought a collection of unsold soccer figurines in the late 1950s, they thought they found a way to help boost their newspaper distribution business based in Modena, Italy. They figured that these little images of popular Serie A players would encourage people to buy a few extra newspapers. Little did they know that what they had really done was stumble on a product that millions of people worldwide would soon become addicted to.
“The demand for the images of the players eclipsed the demand for the newspapers, so the Panini brothers switched businesses,” says Panini America CEO Mark Warsop.
The brothers launched their first collection of soccer players in sticker packets in 1961 and have done it every year since, including special World Cup editions. The first World Cup collection was released for Mexico 1970, and was a runaway success.
Billions of stickers, millions of albums, and almost half a century later, the Russia 2018 World Cup album remains fundamentally the same as the one released 48 years ago. The sticker-mixing process is essentially the same, the company still uses many of the same ‘fifimatic’ machines from the 1960s and the printing process is largely unchanged. The biggest difference is the massive global demand and the size and scope of the undertaking for Panini.
So what made Panini so successful? How did they become synonymous with the World Cup for generations of soccer fans all over the globe? What is their printing process and how is it unique? And how do these stickers connect people from Serbia, Colombia, the United States, the UK, and everywhere in-between?
An addiction…a virus…a fever…These are all terms people use to describe their drive to collect Panini stickers. In most situations one would use these terms in a negative manner, but not in this context.
A more positive word to use might be ‘passion.’ People are crazy about their Panini stickers all over the world. And it’s not just because they like looking at photos of soccer players in a book. There are a number of elements that go into fueling the addiction to the stickers.
“Stickers are not about a piece of paper being stuck into an album. It’s about connecting with people around the world, sharing information, swapping duplicates and making friends. In my opinion, only stickers can connect an 8-year-old kid, a 26-year-old student, a 40-year-old banker and a 70-year-old grandpa. In this hobby, there’s no age limit,” says Serbian Pavle Djordjevic, whose website, CardzReview.com, is dedicated to the collection of the stickers.
Djordjevic collected the stickers as a kid but stopped until 2006 when Serbia made the World Cup again and reignited the fire. But he discovered the difficulty of collecting alone as the community element is key for many collectors. So, in 2010 he found the community he was looking for online and soon began building a worldwide network of like-minded collectors. This led to the creation of CardzReview in 2014.
Warsop says Panini loves and encourages the community element of collecting, especially since it can be so difficult to fill out the entire World Cup album yourself. In order to fill an album of 32 teams, someone would have to buy about 110-120 packets of stickers. This can be an expensive endeavor and leave the collector discouraged if he or she can’t complete the album.
“We encourage people not to just keep buying more and more and more packets and getting frustrated. For World Cup, there’s a huge swapping phenomenon. We organize hundreds of these events,” says Warsop. “You really shouldn’t need to buy any more packets than the total number of stickers divided by the number of stickers in the packets. And if you don’t have access to swap events, you can go online and order the last 50 specific stickers that you need directly from Panini.”
The community element is what keeps people involved once they see that there are lots of other people just like them. For many, the element of nostalgia is a driving force as it takes them back to their childhood when they collected the stickers of their heroes.
Greg Lansdowne is the author of Stuck On You – The Rise & Fall & Rise of Panini Stickers, which is a look at the sticker-collecting craze in the United Kingdom that began in the 1970s. Lansdowne says swapping stickers was massive among kids in the ‘70s and ‘80s.
“Swapping in the school playground was an integral part of collecting the classic Panini albums from the late ‘70s onwards,” says Lansdowne. “These were hugely popular.”
Now, adults are the ones who make up the swap meets.
“They will meet in pubs, clubs and at their homes to undertake swap meets,” Lansdowne says. “Other places such as the National Football Museum will also hold events to swap stickers.”
Pressure to be Perfect
The process to create the stickers and albums is one fraught with stress and difficulty. A team of 12 in Italy is fully dedicated to the creation of the product, from design to contacts with the teams to communication within Panini’s departments headquartered all over the world. Before the billions of stickers can be printed, these 12 people must get everything right.
The pressure to be perfect is enormous, as every year builds upon a legacy that dates back to 1970. Fans remember each year for numerous reasons, from the players and teams to the host country and time-period specific designs.
Some, like New York-based graphic designer Nana Marin, remember the sticker albums specifically because of their designs. Marin grew up in Colombia and became familiar with Panini albums through her father. For her, the sticker albums were seminal in her development as a designer.
“Initially I was drawn to the bold use of color, but then I started to study the use of typography. And I enjoyed that each cover design really spoke to the era it was from,” says Marin.
The designs take years to perfect and they are based on a very detailed style guide, according to Panini Group Publishing Director Fabrizio Melegari. FIFA releases the first visuals dedicated to each World Cup a few years before the event and the Panini designers take it from there. The Panini product tradition dictates that the portraits of the players are most important. Everything is typically centered around those, but the team shots and the National Team badges must be perfect as well.
Most of this process can be done well before the World Cup, but the most difficult thing is getting the correct lineups for each of the 32 National Teams. No one can know the exact players that will be chosen by each team’s manager until they are officially announced, however Panini must make the most educated guesses for each team…and they must do it six months in advance!
They don’t take this task lightly, analyzing statistics, communicating with the National Federations as well as local journalists and others with first-hand knowledge of each team. They are not just taking shots in the dark, but even with all this research there can be last minute surprises (think Landon Donovan missing out on the 2014 World Cup), so Panini offers Update sets with the new players substituting for players who did not make the team.
All of the design work would be in vain if it were not for the machines that printed and sorted the stickers and got them in the hands of eager collectors.
The main innovation that set Panini apart in the 1970s was the self-adhesive nature of the figurines. Instead of the hassle and mess of applying glue to a piece of cardboard, one just had to peel and stick the stickers into the album. In 2018, it’s almost impossible to imagine a world without self-adhesives, but it was downright world-changing at the time.
The process to create and sort the stickers is also one that is unique to Panini, which is why the machines are still the same from the earliest days of the company. Maintaining them is extremely important as they are one-of-kind.
Collectors all over the world have stories of the players they just could not get a hold of, or, conversely, the players they just kept getting over and over again. These stories are not the result of over or under printing by Panini, Warsop says. He explained the sorting and packing process to prove this point.
“So they are not actually ‘random’ because if they were random you could potentially get two of the same stickers in the same pack and we guarantee that won’t happen. The stickers are printed in sheet format, similar to trading cards, 100 up, then they are cut down into what we call ‘quadrata’. Those are piled up and put into a mixing machine that mixes them in quadrata and you end up with them in layers in a way that you are guaranteed that you won’t get two of the same. Then after that they are cut into individuals and put onto the right hoppers. So the mixing process guarantees you won’t get two stickers the same in any one pack. Unlike trading cards, we print equal quantities of each sticker.”
So what about all of those stories of that one player or badge that collectors couldn’t get their hands on? What about those agonizing days opening pack after pack and going to swap meet after swap meet to find that all-important final sticker? Warsop can explain that, too.
“Although some people get the illusion that some stickers are rarer than others, they actually aren’t. The reason that happens, for example, if you’re in the UK market, the first England badge you get goes into your album, the second one goes on your wall or on your school book or on your Playstation and they never come into circulation for swapping,” says Warsop. “So it gives the impression that we don’t print the same amount of badge stickers as everything else, but in fact we print the same number of every sticker. The kids and collectors create their own shortages purely through demand.”
For many, the World Cup, this quadrennial confluence of the best players and teams in the world, this event full of magical moments countered by heartbreaking ones, this sporting event that is simultaneously everything that is wrong with sports and everything that is perfect about sports, would not be complete without a few sheets of paper and some stickers.
Some can’t explain why they find these stickers so magical, so gripping, so hard to let go of. Greg Lansdowne, a man so full of words about the Panini stickers that he wrote an entire book about them, gives the best description in the simplest of phrases.
“Most importantly, collecting stickers is good fun!”