The school playground was a cruel environment where an ethos of survival of the fittest reigned – if you didn’t want to take part, then look the other way. Before we knew about the words capitalism or economics, we practiced their principles. Our currency wasn’t on the FOREX though, it was little bits of paper, much like other currencies, that weren’t tied to a nation-state, but given value that, to those on the outside could seem arbitrary. To those trading them, the value was directly tied to current events as well as prestige and exclusivity.
Panini stickers ruled the playground for years. Piles of dog-eared footballers would make the trip to school with us every day, held together by desperate elastic bands that were turning white at their most overstretched points. Once the book was filled, if we even bothered, we could show off and swap what we had. Phrases that were perfectly suitable, but nonetheless primitive jargon, entered our lexicon. Doublers and shinies, or stickers you had two or more off and ones that shone, were the making of a young person’s position in the school’s pecking order.
Since their inauguration in 1978, the Panini sticker album has been a phenomenon that transcends generational trends. Popular mainly among young boys, due to both their more widespread infatuation with football and proclivity to collect things – the stickers became an institution, a rite-of-passage that was eclipsed only by playing football itself.
Modena – the home of vinegar, Ferrari, Lamborghini, opera singer Pavarotti and Panini stickers. It all began at a newspaper kiosk run by brothers Benito and Giuseppe. Although they didn’t begin with football stickers, they were immediately successful. The debut year of business, 1961, saw 15 million packets of stickers sell. The North of Italy has always been the industrial capital and this ease-of-access to space and machinery helped their operation expand considerably. The following year the duo’s two other brothers, Franco and Umberto, joined their new family – that’s when it began to take off. A few years later they had the idea to move into football stickers. They didn’t look back.
If you venture up into your grandparent’s loft, they’re bound to have a dusty box with one of these early albums from your dad or uncle, stored somewhere between old match-day programme’s and a box of Subbuteo. They are part of football’s Holy Trinity of Cult Collectibles, and importantly, beyond the object itself, they carry nostalgia-inducing stories that are both personal to you, but with universal elements – the folk-tales of childhood, well worthy of future sociological study.
As would be expected, there are enthusiasts, and with that, the acknowledgement of particular years in the collection’s history. In particular 1983, the first year that players were photographed in full kits. Considering the re-emergence of the retro sportswear fetish, the opportunity to admire whole kits from back when ‘shorts were short’, made this a vintage year for Panini. Remarkably though, thanks to a couple of player’s mischief, it was also the last year of the experimental format. Swansea City’s attackers Bob Latchford and Alan Curtis posed for the pictures in socks and slippers respectively. Fans were happy. The board wasn’t.
Such idiosyncrasies are what people yearn for now. As our contemporary embodiment of Panini stickers is the FIFA Ultimate Team pack, their contemporary uniformity can’t even touch our pre-tech excitement. The computer game franchise cleverly use a heart-stopping reveal sequence when showing the players you’ve got and videos online show the excitement (or rage) when people get the players they want (or don’t), but I would offer my opinion that nothing was more exciting than saving up your pocket money to buy as many packs as you could, before tearing them open on your bedroom floor. The trick was to be careful enough not to rip any cards whilst repeating the ones you wanted to get – a list of which existed in your head at all times.
Got it, got it, got it, need that one. It sounded out like a mantra spoken aloud by young footballing shamans when flicking through your mate’s stack, exercising the laws of supply and demand in the playground market. You’d announce when you were getting some more packs after school that day only to return the following day like a celebrity, with friends asking what ones you ended up getting to see if you could help them – not that they had to ask, you knew who they needed too. Some stickers tended to be popular while others were a little rarer, driving up their value.
If you believe that Panini evenly produced and distributed each sticker, then it’s fair to say that geographical differences were the deciding factor in certain cards scarcity. Growing up in Glasgow would make it a lot easier to find Hibs and Hearts players to trade – any Celtic or Rangers doubler would be used as decoration for schoolbooks and beyond. Some of these mysteriously near non-existent stickers had a gloriously ephemeral quality – the footballing shiny Charizard. If my memory serves me it was Gazza at Rangers, Henrik Larsson at Celtic and the shiny version of all of the club’s crests – they were peelable gold, a truly invaluable hand of cards.
Without the internet, this was the way we got to know squads and statistics, most of which we could name off by heart fairly early on into the season. Any stadium’s capacity or club’s year of formation was tattooed onto our brains – it was the gateway drug to a lifetime of footballing addiction. It isn’t fair to bash everything that came before now. Everyone’s childhood is a treasure-trove of memories. Endless days and nights kicking a ball around the park, the legendary free-kick you scored or the time you took it past four of your mates before chipping the keeper in the unforgiving rain. We all have our own memories like these, but that’s the beauty in Panini stickers, they’re a memory that we all have in common – and one that we always will.
By Edd Norval.