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Panini stickers capture the magic of football

The story of Panini, the sticker company that grew from a Modena newsstand to a global phenomenon

Think of the World Cup and you think of… Panini. These classic Italian stickers have been a feature of every tournament since 1970, schoolboys (and grown-ups) across the world buying and swapping cards to complete their album collections of player portraits and team line-ups. With the World Cup approaching and sticker frenzy escalating, Kate Carlisle was given a personal tour around the Panini Museum in the family’s home town of Modena.

For a generation raised on mass-market football consumption, Panini World Cup stickers are woven into the fabric of our collective childhood psyche. Citizen Kane had his sledge, we have our Panini stickers. It is a passion that has persisted and grown every four years with every pack eagerly ripped open and every album slowly filled.

And it all started in Modena.

Original Panini newsstand/Kate Carlisle

One snowy day in January 1945, four brothers became proud owners of a newsstand on corso Duomo, smack dab in the town centre by the cathedral. Trudging through the cold in their ragged school shorts to dust off the edicola sign, two of them, Franco and Umberto Panini, barely counted 30 years between them.

‘My father was 14, my uncle 13. They bought the stand for the price of a bicycle and paid it off bit by bit,’ Umberto’s son Marco tells me, showing me round the Panini Museum and relating a real rags-to-riches story.

One-tenth of the family’s entire collection is on display in the one-room Museo delle Figurina in Modena’s former orphanage, the Palazzo Santa Margherita. ‘One day I hope we can display much more,’ says Marco.

War-ravaged Italy was hungry for ‘news, trinkets, anything that smacked of normal life,’ continues Marco’s cousin Laura Panini, who now helps run the family’s lucrative publishing business. ‘They sold all the papers they could lay their hands on the day after Modena was liberated in April. It was three months after they had taken over the kiosk’.

Panini Museum/Kate Carlisle

After 1945, the Panini brothers were able to provide for their eight-member fatherless family. As the brothers grew, so did the newsstand. They began marketing gadgets and various merchandise. ‘Books, old magazines, comic strips, anything they had put aside,’ says Marco. They took turns at the stand so it could stay open from 7am until midnight. 

In the meantime, Franco graduated in accounting and landed a stable job at a bank. Umberto moved to Venezuela to work as a mechanic in the booming South-American oil business. The other brothers kept the family business going.

After seven years in Latin America, Umberto got a call from the eldest brother, Giuseppe. ‘Drop everything! You’ll find America right here!’ recalls Marco. And he did.

Giuseppe had found a bag of discarded display images among a newsstand delivery and decided in a flash that the future was in these low-cost, charming little prints that had yet to be fully marketed. ‘If anyone can make trading cards, we can,’ Giuseppe told the family. The ones he had found were of plants and flowers. Football players might just be a better subject, he thought…

Welcome to Modena/Kate Carlisle

‘The brothers had to learn not only how to print the cards but how to transform black-and-white photos of players into colour,’ says Laura. ‘Each one took his own corner of the business plan, rolled up his sleeves and got to work.’

The first player card was Internazionale defender and captain Bruno Bolchi, in 1961. ‘They had this black-and-white photo of Bolchi and they hopped from printer to printer to learn just how to bring it to life with colour,’ remembers Laura. They began buying photos from agencies and acquiring them from Serie A teams around Italy.

For Panini’s first print run, they packaged three at a time and promised a free football for anyone who collected 100 with an official stamp on the back. The test run was a massive success. Then came the next question: what to do with all of the hundreds of cards? ‘My father and uncles came up with the idea of the album… somewhere to put all of the cards. A project to complete.’

The museum’s elegantly lit, second-floor hall holds historic cards collected by the Panini family, but the real treasure is in the pull-out displays that hold the first ones printed, including the iconic Bruno Bolchi original and, the holiest of holies, a complete 1970 World Cup album.

Panini 1970 album/Peterjon Cresswell

After Serie A, it was time to go international. In preparation for Mexico 1970, Spanish-speaking Umberto was sent on the mission to sign licence agreements, starting with the national team of the host country. ‘He literally hopped on a Transatlantic flight with a suitcase full of cards and started knocking on doors,’ says Marco. Once the host country and organisers were signed up, the other federations tumbled their way.

From then on, every nation, from the most developed to the most obscure, signed licence agreements, and drove the burgeoning sticker craze. Each federation was responsible for providing its own content but the buck always stopped at head office. 

A handful couldn’t come through for one reason or another. ‘Look, six players! Who knows how it happened, but there was no getting all of the players’ portraits,’ says Marco, pointing to the sparse Haiti page in the collectors’ album for the 1974 World Cup. On the plus side, 1974 was the adhesive World Cup collection – no more messy, sticky glue.

‘Until the 1980s, everything from printing to editing, lay-out and packaging, took place at the Modena factory,’ says Laura. ‘When it was deadline time, the air was electric.’ One particular editor and fact checker, Arrigo Beltran, still inspires nostalgic sighs from Panini family members for his eagle eye and tireless dedication, especially as editions were closing. ‘Nothing slipped by him, nothing,’ the two cousins say in tandem.

Panini 1978 album/Peterjon Cresswell

The stickers generated incredible earning power. ‘It costs next to nothing to print them, about five cents, and a pack sells for about 50,’ says Marco. ‘When the company was still packaging by hand, we put out about a million a day. When packaging went automated in 1966, that number shot up to eight million a day… which is 40 million stickers.’

‘Panini was a straightforward operation. The paper came in, the stickers went out. When the company was sold in 1988, it was robust and healthy,’ says Marco. And so it remains today. Its headquarters and packaging facility remain at the original factory in Modena. The 2012 sales for the Panini group exceeded €637 million, in more than 110 countries, supported by 12 subsidiaries and nearly 1,000 employees worldwide.

Today, the company continues to triple their turnover on World Cup years. The 2014 collection includes 640 stickers, featuring each player for the 32 competing nations plus a team picture, logo and photos of the stadiums.

Panini Museum/Kate Carlisle

Part of the Panini family continues to thrive as publishers. Umberto Panini’s mechanical know-how not only served to improve packaging speed for their stickers but has also been put to use by other companies mechanising production lines.

‘Even today, it’s a hobby that any kid in any country can understand. It is a level playing field… for just a few cents, everyone can have the same thing. And it really doesn’t matter if you’re rich or poor, swapping in the main square or after church, anyone can have a collection and finish their album,’ says Marco.

While the tentacles of distribution have been delegated country per country, the Panini family remained adamant that ‘children shouldn’t be the victims of fraud’, as Marco puts it. ‘One of the first mechanical conundrums was to make sure that there were no doubles in a pack. That was even before the print run for the 1970 World Cup. It was and remains important that kids know for sure that they can complete their album.’

Museo della Figurina, Palazzo Santa Margherita, corso Canalgrande 103, Modena. Open Wed-Fri 11am-1pm, 4pm-7pm, Sat-Sun 11am-7pm. Summer opening (July 1-Aug 20) Wed-Sun 3pm-7pm. Admission free.