The World Cup kicked off today in Qatar, and while you’ll hear all manner of “Oles” and “Allezs” over the next four weeks, this might be the event’s ultimate soundtrack: got, got, need. It’s not the scalpers hawking tickets, it’s the refrain of fans sifting through packs of World Cup stickers. Think soccer’s answer to baseball cards. Before the 1970 World Cup, four brothers in Italy, the Paninis, began printing collectables featuring images of players from every country in the competition. More than 50 years later, fans all over the globe scour for that obscure Serbian goalkeeper or elusive lionel messi – hoping to complete their albums. The Panini sticker phenomenon has become a booming, international business and a central part of the World Cup experience.
For millions of soccer fans, the World Cup unofficially began weeks ago, when the Panini stickers for this quadrennial event shot onto the market.
In a classroom in the town of Sudbury, England, in the thrumming cities of Sao Paulo and Mexico City, fans of all stripes embarked on a common treasure hunt: collecting 670 stickers depicting the players and teams from this World Cup.
All so they can complete their album.
Francesco Furnari: Listen. If you have gold or Panini sticker today, people will go for the sticker and not the gold.
Jon Wertheim: Panini sticker’s more valuable than gold you’re saying?
Francesco Furnari: Today, yes.
Francesco Furnari is the biggest official Panini distributor in the United States. An Italian Venezuelan American, he is the ultimate Panini sticker evangelist.
He’s completed every sticker album since 1974, including the 2022 vintage, many times over.
Francesco Furnari: I have already seven.
Jon Wertheim: You’ve- you’re a man in your 50s. You have seven albums completed?
Francesco Furnari: And still counting.
A pack costs a $1.20, and Furnari predicts sticker sales from 2022 will reach 100 million packets in the U.S. alone, nearly a billion worldwide.
Jon Wertheim: We’re talking about a little piece of paper with some adhesive on it. What makes this so special?
Francesco Furnari: Jon, you gotta understand that you have all your legends. You have all your best players at a distance of, you know, your hand. You can touch them, you can talk to them It’s fantastic.
How coveted are these things? When Argentina ran out of stickers in September, its secretary of commerce called an emergency meeting to solve this national crisis.
Jon Wertheim: We live in a digital world. How are these paper stickers still this popular?
Francesco Furnari: This sensation, Jon, to get a pack, to rip it out, to smell it, to open it, and to find the players right here, there is no way you can replicate it in an electronic way.
Jon Wertheim: So you even have a method for how you’re ripping that packet open—
Francesco Furnari: Every single pack has to be done (LAUGH) in the same way. By the way, I’ve opened at least—
Jon Wertheim: You’ve done this before.
Francesco Furnari: –probably 2,000 packs up until now. Oh my God. Germany
Jon Wertheim: This was a good one? Good pack…
Francesco Furnari: That was a good pull. I love it.
We went to Modena, Italy, to Panini’s headquarters. The equivalent of Willy Wonka’s factory.
Paninis rolled off the press 21 hours a day, 11 million packets a day, each containing five stickers. The headliners: Mbappe, Messi, Modric. And the coming stars, players with four names, and there’s Fred.
The phenomenon started here, next to the cathedral, at a newspaper kiosk in the center of town. After World War II, Olga Panini, a widow, ran the newsstand with her four sons. Not unlike a soccer team, each had a special skill. The oldest son, Giuseppe, was the dreamer with the big plans.
We met Giuseppe’s son, Antonio, and Giuseppe’s nieces, Laura and Lucia Panini in Modena.
Laura Panini: He was like a volcano. He had many, many ideas.
Jon Wertheim: A volcano?
Laura Panini: A volcano, yes.
Giuseppe’s initial idea was to sell cards depicting flowers.
Antonio Panini: And was a disaster (laugh). But they realized that the formula was okay, not the subject.
Short of lire, Giuseppe had, as it were, one last shot on goal. It was 1961 and he turned to a new subject: Italian soccer. It was a hit, especially with the kids.
Even if production was rudimentary.
Lucia Panini: All the stickers were printed and then were cut. And they were mixing with a shovel at the beginning.
Jon Wertheim: To make sure there were no duplicates (laugh) they mixed with a shovel.
Lucia Panini: Then they replaced a shovel with a churn, the one they use normally for making butter or cheese..
Jon Wertheim: With a butter churn?
Lucia Panini: Yes, yes. (laugh) And they had a handle, and they were moving this handle and it was working.
Giuseppe’s brother Umberto, the family engineer, invented machinery that mixed stickers to prevent dreaded duplicates in each pack, his contraptions were so successful, the designs are still in use today, 60 years later.
And they enabled the brothers to scale up their ambitions. Before the 1970 World Cup in Mexico, they paid a thousand dollars cash to soccer’s governing body to buy the rights to produce stickers of the players, not least the great Pele.
Suddenly “Panini” became chiefly associated not with a sandwich but with a worldwide pastime. The growth of the stickers mirroring the growth of soccer.
Antonio Allegra, Panini’s marketing director, told us how collecting the World Cup albums over the decades became a rite of passage; also a way to mark time.
Antonio Allegra: Wow. It’s the first appearance for Diego Armando Maradona in the World Cup.
Jon Wertheim: This is Maradona’s first World Cup?
Antonio Allegra: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
Antonio Allegra: This one is Germany 2006. And here we have a very, very young Messi.
Jon Wertheim: This, this teenager right here.
Antonio Allegra: Yeah, yeah, yeah, he is 19.
There are countries that have fallen off the map and hairstyles that have fallen out of fashion.
Jon Wertheim: He looks like the drummer.
Today, Panini sticker photo shoots are the World Cup equivalent of school picture day.
Back in Italy, Marcella Mannori is Panini’s project manager overseeing image control.
Marcella Mannori: Sometimes these pictures are not perfect. Might be too dark, maybe there’s a pimple on someone’s face. And we’re asked to remove it.
Jon Wertheim: Little Photoshop?
Marcella Mannori: Correct.
Jon Wertheim: Heard one story of a federation once getting in touch and saying, ‘This guy’s really ugly. Can you do something about that?’
Marcella Mannori: Yes. It’s the truth.
Jon Wertheim: Should we name names?
Marcella Mannori: No, I’m still working with these people. (laugh)
Jon Wertheim: So what do you do when you get that call…
Marcella Mannori: We…First reply is of course, ‘No, no worry. I mean, we’re gonna change the picture.” Second time, third time, fourth time. The fourth time I will say, ‘Listen, this is his face (laugh) it’s his face, I’m sorry. I mean we did all we co-could.
What do players think of sticker madness? We asked Gigi Buffon, who literally saved Italy during its run to the World Cup trophy in 2006.
One of the greatest ever goalkeepers, at age 44, he’s not only still playing, but, let’s keep this between us, he’s still collecting stickers, a hobby since childhood.
Jon Wertheim: When you still collect, where are you getting your stickers?
Gigi Buffon (Translation): Now and again I like the ritual of going to the kiosk to buy say 10 packets of stickers. It’s a little embarrassing, but now I can say to the kiosk owner the stickers are for my kids, and he believes me.
Buffon let us in on another secret.
Jon Wertheim: Do the players swap stickers in the locker room?
Gigi Buffon (Translation): Yes, I think if we were really to investigate all the players in the locker room, I think 60 to 70 percent filled the album.
Buffon appeared in four World Cup albums, aging before our eyes, and his.
Jon Wertheim: We have visual aids…
Gigi Buffon: Ooh!
His favorite sticker was for the 2006 album, the last time Italy triumphed at the World Cup.
Jon Wertheim: You’ve had your picture taken thousands of times, but you understood this is for generations
Gigi Buffon (Translation): Yes, for sure. For me it was a solemn moment, because there was a kind of respect that I had to show towards Gigi the child and to the dreams of Gigi the child.
An hour from Buffon’s practice field in Parma, we met another child at heart, Gianni Bellini. Considered the most prolific Panini collector in the world.
The debut edition, Mexico 1970, is the holy grail of World Cup sticker albums. This guy has five of them. And he ain’t sellin’.
He lives in what is less a home than a sticker repository. You might have baseball cards in your attic, he has half a million stickers spilling out of every drawer. Bellini even has whole sheets of them hidden under a tablecloth, no one is allowed to eat on the table because it’s too sacred.
Lucky for Gianni, his long-suffering wife, Giovanna, has a sense of humor.
Jon Wertheim: Heaven forbid there were a fire tonight, you had to go back into your house, what would you rescue first?
Gianni Bellini (Translation): Obviously the stickers, if there is a fire my wife would run away with her own legs.
Jon Wertheim: Your wife can fend for herself, but the stickers can’t.
Gianni Bellini: Exactly.
Saturday nights are all right for sticking at the Bellini household. While Giovanna watches a movie, Gianni fills his album, and never forgets a face.
Jon Wertheim: You remember 50 years later what the last player was you needed to complete the album?
Gianni Bellini (Translation): I also remember the first sticker that I got in a pack which was Sergio Carantini, a defender from Vicenza.
Jon Wertheim: It’s like your first girlfriend.
Gianni Bellini (Translation): Her I don’t remember.
He’s not alone in his soccer nostalgia, those kids who grew up in the 70s collecting stickers are now grandparents and parents, passing down the tradition – like Francesco Furnari in Florida.
Francesco Furnari: Think about this. There is no way you can find a product that you can have different generations doing at the same time. It’s fantastic. (big smile)
Here’s what else makes it exceptional, almost everyone that completes their album does so not through purchase power, but through old fashioned, face-to-face trading. Around the world, there are Panini sticker swapping sessions that are organized; others that are impromptu.
This next month in the desert of Qatar, one country will lift the trophy, but millions will feel their personal version of World Cup glory.
Jon Wertheim: You’ve seen people complete their albums. What is that feeling like when you get that very last sticker?
Francesco Furnari: Let me put it this way. Whenever you play soccer and you score a goal in the final of the tournament, that’s kind of the feeling you have whenever you complete an album.
It’s an old-timey, analog hobby, no screen required. It relies on the humanity of touch and the value is largely sentimental. But in these tribal, polarized times, leave it to stickers to take people, and countries, and bind them together.
Produced by Draggan Mihailovich. Associate producer, Emily Cameron. Broadcast associate, Elizabeth Germino. Edited by Sean Kelly.