There are countless sticker collections gathering dust in lofts across the country. Panini albums have been avidly compiled by millions of people across many generations, dating back to the first that was launched in the UK for the 1970 World Cup. The sticking phenomenon was so popular, it even had its own language — ‘swapsies’, ‘got, got, need’ and ‘shinies’. Neglected for decades and destined for the charity shop or car boot sale, it might well be worth digging those stickers out for one last time before being jettisoned as they could be worth a small fortune.
The original stickers may have been a pocket-money price of 5p for a pack of four stickers in 1978 but earlier this year a Diego Maradona sticker was sold for the eye-watering sum of $555,960 at US auction eclipsing the previous record of $288,000 for a Pele from 1958, which was from pre-Panini days. This record-breaking sticker was what is known in collectors’ parlance as a ‘Rookie’ sticker, which signifies that it was the Argentinian ever appeared in a Panini album. The album in question was the Panini Calciatori 1979/80 album and the Argentinian was part of a World Stars feature.
The United States is the primary market for extracting such high valuations. Firstly, there is a long tradition of collecting sports stars’ images, going back all the way back to the late nineteenth century when baseball cards were first produced. Nowadays there are serious investors — both individual and corporate — who specialise in football stickers to the extent that some have even set up their own YouTube channels displaying their wares. This is a long way from the origins of the Panini brand and its early evolution in Europe.
The Panini brothers, Benito and Giuseppe, launched the concept six decades ago in their home town of Modena during the 1961/62 Italian domestic season. The albums were an instant success in Italy, and other European countries were not far behind in adopting the stickers and via several collaborations Panini established itself among Europe’s leading football marketplaces and so the playgrounds of Munich, Madrid and Amsterdam were awash with children swapping and haggling over Riva, Rivera and Fachetti. The UK soon caught on to the craze.
Although Panini had been known on these shores since the Mexico 1970 album the breakthrough arrived in 1977. The Euro Football album was revolutionary as for the first time it focused on the European Cup, UEFA and Cup Winners Cup competitions when English clubs were on the cusp of being the dominant force, providing seven of the next eight European champions and a smattering of winners of the two lesser competitions. Greg Lansdowne, author of Panini Football Stickers: The Official Celebration book, explains. “I have spoken to a few people who have collected that album and they said it was like a window to Europe with all these exotic names like Borussia Monchengladbach plus all the top players and even some of the lesser lights such as Dundalk.” This was when media coverage of European football was at best minimal, focusing almost exclusively on the British clubs unlike today’s blanket coverage.
Panini also secured a game-changing logistical triumph as they introduced the revolutionary idea of self-adhesives, which made the whole process of placing those precious stickers in the album so much easier. No longer did messy dollops of glue threaten to unhinge and spoil the pages, as a consequence popularity spiralled. The final masterstroke was in tying up a distribution deal with the UK’s top-selling football weekly magazine of the time. Shoot! had a circulation of hundreds of thousands so the album, along with a packet of six stickers thrown in for good measure, reached its target market of children, many of whom got hooked.
By following this breakthrough with the launch of the first domestic album for English and Scottish clubs in 1978 there was no looking back. “At their height in the late 1980s they all hovered around a hundred million sticker packets every year,” Lansdowne says. “There was little competition as no rivals could compete with the quality and the distribution, added to which Panini held the licence for the British leagues.” However, there was a problem looming which was to derail Panini’s grip on the market in the shape of Robert Maxwell. Not content with sticking his oar in at Oxford United and threatening to engineer a merger with Reading to create the frightful Thames Valley Royals in 1983, Maxwell cast envious eyes over the booming Panini empire. He had tried to run his own sticker business through the Daily Mirror but it was of vastly inferior quality and this culminated in Maxwell buying the Panini in 1988 for just under £100 million.
Maxwell used Panini’s healthy revenues to shore up other failing parts of his business. This led to under-investment and the brand spiralled downhill to such an extent that when the Premier League was launched in 1992 there was no album produced. A glaring opportunity was missed and the licence was then picked up by Merlin, a company formed by four disgruntled erstwhile Panini employees, who teamed up with David Dein, vice-chairman of Arsenal and as one of the key movers behind the formation of the Premier League Dein helped facilitate Merlin getting the all-important licence.
Merlin managed to arrest the slide precipitated by Maxwell’s takeover, sales bounced back to around 75 million packets p.a. compared to Panini’s anaemic performance of only a few million. Panini did bounce back as they continued with their World Cup and European Championship albums and the 2014 World Cup edition became its biggest seller globally with total sales in the region of £50 million in the UK. Panini returned to the domestic market by securing the Premier League licence for the first time for the 2019/20 season.
Aside from the current players, Lansdowne points out that there is still a thriving market in Panini stickers for those players from past generations, who retired many years ago. “So these players who played in the seventies and eighties still get sent a lot of old Panini stickers to sign even now,” Lansdowne says. “David Fairclough, for example, is on the front cover of the Football 79 album, which at the time he didn’t even know anything about. So now not only does he get sent his stickers to sign but also the front cover of Football 79.”
As Fairclough was coming to the end of his career at Liverpool in 1983 Pat Nevin joined Chelsea from Clyde. For a player whose recent autobiography was aptly entitled The Accidental Footballer, Nevin made a habit of kicking against what was expected of players. He regarded endless pre-season photo shoots a particular irritant, as can be judged by the barely disguised contempt on his face in the majority of Panini stickers. “I have always hated any type of self-promotion and especially the photos sessions, which just were so boring as they dragged on and on,” Nevin says. “There were dozens of snappers lining up to take our picture and I made it pretty clear that I didn’t want to be there, and would rather be training.”
As an outlier, Nevin refused to conform to the norm but he was not unusual in not being a collector. “I don’t know any players who collected them, the only time we saw them was when fans brought them to be signed.” It was viewed as a chore and one that all the players wanted to be over as soon as possible. “We did not receive any royalty or fee,” Nevin continues. “Any money would have gone to the club but we knew nothing about it. Nowadays the agents would be all over that and I’m sure the players get a healthy percentage.”
Lansdowne confirms that some players did receive remuneration for their Panini pictures but it depended on the clubs. “David Fairclough of Liverpool told me that they did actually get a cheque specifically for the Panini photo shoot. Not many clubs did that but Panini had a deal with the PFA, along with the Football League, and then it was down to the clubs to divide it out, so the clubs should have passed on that money for the Panini stickers.”
Like Fairclough, Nevin might be blissfully unaware that he was also the front cover star of the 1990 album, pictured battling with John Barnes in the 1989 FA Cup Final. That album will not fetch anything approaching the phenomenal sum that the Maradona rookie sticker did, but if you do find that album or any random stickers lurking in your loft they could be worth a little more than you might think.