‘It was collectable in the ’80s’ by Greg Lansdowne
“All that I know most surely about morality and obligations, I owe to football.” So said French philosopher and sometime goalkeeper, Albert Camus.
I understand where he is coming from but I would add on the word “stickers” to the end.
It has been my long-held belief that the way you collect football stickers as a child goes a long way to defining your adulthood.
Me? I collected every football sticker album going throughout the ’80s (and a fair few that weren’t about football).
Never completed an album. Rarely even got close.
And so it transpired that my later life has seen me flit from project to project without ever quite managing to perfect the art of focusing on one task at a time.
There are many other ‘types’ of football sticker collectors, among them the ‘High Achievers’ who are determined to finish their album before anyone else has even had a chance to peel off their first backing.
Then there are others who can’t resist ‘Doing a deal’, such as BBC TV’s Apprentice 2015 winner Joseph Valente, whose first business transactions came as a seven-year-old when he would drive a hard bargain for those desperate to pick up that elusive shiny to finish their Merlin sticker album.
The story of football sticker collecting in the UK is that of a cut-throat industry… both in the playground and the board room.
Still going strong
January 2018 marked the 40th anniversary of Panini’s first UK-domestic football sticker album: ‘Football 78’ – given away free with Shoot! magazine a few weeks after Star Wars had been released in the UK… and just a couple of weeks before Grange Hill opened its school gates for the first time on BBC TV.
What a time to be growing up!
Collectable cards (initially given away with packets of cigarettes and then packaged up with a stick of gum) had been the main currency for youngsters up until the late 1960s, at which time picture stamps came along.
It was the introduction of a colourful album in which to house your collection of ‘The Wonderful World of Soccer Stars’ images, produced by FKS, that caught the imagination of adolescent football fans.
At this stage, however, a painstaking effort was required to glue each one into the album, which must have required the patience of a saint. A time-saving alternative was being pioneered elsewhere in Europe but the FKS picture stamps ruled the roost over here throughout most of the ’70s.
Panini’s ‘Football 78’ album then blew the opposition out of the water.
Not only could your glue pot now be saved for art homework, thanks to Panini’s self-adhesive stickers, but they also produced shiny foil club badges that became much coveted.
Panini were also in the process of striking up deals with the football leagues and Professional Footballers’ Associations in England and Scotland, which gave them access to all official branding as well as the ability to photograph each squad in the latest club strips at the start of the season (without the technology of today it meant the album could not come out until halfway through the season but collectors felt it was worth the wait).
That is not to say ‘Football 78’ didn’t have its flaws but it was clear this was a step-up from any rival effort.
Although the Panini name had already been famous in its Italian homeland – and elsewhere in Europe – for many years, EU trading laws meant they couldn’t enter the UK market until the late ’70s (prior to that they had been producing the cards/stickers for London-based company Top Sellers, who brought out English league sticker albums between 1972 and 1977 alongside their popular range of horror magazines).
Benito and Giuseppe started their business as a Modena news-stand in the early ’50s before setting up the Panini Brothers Newspaper Distribution Office in 1954. By 1960, as one of their many ventures, they were selling a range of figurines (stickers attached with glue) depicting images of plants and flowers, shifting 3 million packets of two stickers for ten lire each.
A year later, they brought out their first Calciatori/Football Players Collection… and the rest was history. Younger brothers Franco and Umberto joined the business to lend their own expertise so that once the local market was cornered, world collectables domination was sought.
The Panini brand name had begun to enter the UK psyche via their 1970 and 1974 World Cup albums but the first of those collections, in particular, had limited distribution compared to FKS while the latter suffered from a lack of English presence in the finals… though it probably boosted sales in Scotland!
Having tested the water under the Top Sellers brand and ‘Euro Football’ in 1977, giving away their first domestic album free with Shoot! was a masterstroke as the popular magazine was selling hundreds of thousands of issues a week at the time.
To strike up a deal, Panini lavishly wined and dined a Shoot! task force in order to convince them of their credibility. A few years later, once the appeal of Panini had been established, it was Shoot! who would have to vie with rival publication Match Weekly to continue the relationship. Panini albums were now selling copies of Shoot! rather than the other way round.
Distribution of the stickers would also prove key – once you have the album the collector needs to know where to get a ready stock to fuel his/her habit – so WHSmith set up a specific Panini arm to cope with the phenomenon.
More than 80 million packets of ‘Football 78’ stickers were sold and the die was cast.
Rivals attempted to keep up but without official backing the contrast became increasingly stark (see the latter FKS albums including, for instance, their attempts at ‘alternative’ club badges in ‘Soccer 81’).
With all-comers swatted away unceremoniously, Panini had a clear field in which to purvey their collectables by the mid-80s.
From the moment the latest album was extricated from its protective wrapping in Shoot!, Panini football stickers would become the focal point of school life for a couple of months a year (even more during a World Cup season).
Every era has its school crazes but for one to endure so long is testament to Panini’s – then Merlin’s in the ’90s – slick operations.
It is possible to make a lot of money out of football stickers but many companies have shown how it is equally possible to quickly go bust!
Although the mistakes from the pretenders now generate a rustic charm, when you were an ’80s collector you wanted an album to be just right (the correct kits, the authentic club badges, the formulaic head and shoulder photos and so on).
You could also rely on experimental features within each Panini album (such as cartoon images depicting club nicknames or a ‘Laws of the Game’ section) as well as even dabbling with full-length player shots in ‘Football 83’.
With anything so popular, however, there would always be dissenters.
Inevitably, the media climbed upon the bandwagon when a few disgruntled parents complained about how much money their offspring were expecting them to fork out to satiate voracious collecting appetites.
Add to the mix the long-touted conspiracy theory of some stickers being printed in smaller numbers to make it harder to finish the album.
Panini were adamant all stickers were, and still are, printed in equal numbers. If certain stickers appeared to be scarce it was because when doubles of those were obtained they rarely went into the doubles/swaps piles of collectors. Hence, during the ’80s, the high volume of Liverpool supporters throughout England meant Ian Rush and Kenny Dalglish were more as often to be seen plastered on school folders and bedroom walls as stuck in Panini albums.
Club/national badges (predominantly known as ‘foils’ in the ’80s but now commonly termed ‘shinies’) were, and still are, hot currency due to their perceived value (that ‘value’ being their aesthetic appeal as they do, after all, only represent one sticker in the album, just like any other).
Such was the appeal of Panini by the middle of the ’80s that Rupert Murdoch and Robert Maxwell waged a fierce battle to obtain the rights to promote the stickers in their respective red tops.
The Mirror won out initially before Murdoch (or, specifically, Kelvin MacKenzie) made Panini a deal they couldn’t refuse in 1986.
Panini’s first 100-million packet seller came the following year with ‘Football 87’ and that success followed again for ‘Football 88’, only for that album to signal the beginning of the end of its domestic reign in the UK.
Maxwell wouldn’t let his defeat to The Sun lie so, after his first reaction was to bring out rival Daily Mirror sticker albums in 1986-87 and 1987-88, he went one step further in buying out the Panini family (a foolproof way to ensure The Mirror were able to win back their syndication deal with the Modena-based company!).
From there, the story took some sinister turns as newly formed rival Merlin (set up by former Panini employees) were presented with some huge, dubious, obstacles pitched up by Maxwell in their attempts to compete in the collectables industry.
Merlin’s tale ended happily even if Maxwell’s didn’t but, now back in Italian hands after several different owners, Panini are also back at the top of their game.
The 2014 Panini World Cup album was their best-selling ever and the 2018 version is set to eclipse even that success, helped by expanding their markets still further.
This return to former glories has been fuelled by the hunger of adults keen to revive memories of a much-loved childhood pastime.
Even I have recently managed to change the habit of a lifetime by completing an album or two.
Another Panini life-lesson in a nutshell: if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.