Swapsies and Shinies
Carlo Parola was born in Turin in September 1921. He won domestic titles with Juventus as both a player and a manager and was capped ten times for Italy. But he is famous for his mastery of the overhead (or bicycle) kick. He didn’t invent the move (a version of it is depicted in an engraving of the first international match, Scotland v. England in 1872) but he was synonymous with it in Italy, where he was known as ‘Signor Rovesciata’ (‘Mr Overhead Kick’). He once played in Scotland, too, for a European Select XI at Hampden Park, in front of 137,000 fans in 1947. Showing off his signature move on the wrong side of a 6-1 mauling by Great Britain, he insisted that, despite the score, he’d played well and enjoyed the atmosphere. The Italian press still called him the ‘Man of Glasgow’ when he died in 2000.
Parola and his bicycle kicks had a lasting impact on Giuseppe and Benito Panini. The brothers were running a newspaper distribution office in Modena when they came across sets of stickers, depicting plants and flowers, that a company in Milan had been unable to sell. They bought up the remaining stock and sold them in packs of two, for ten lire each, eventually selling three million packs. They moved into football stickers in the 1960s, publishing their first Calciatori (football players) collection in 1961. The logo they used for their new venture was a photo of Parola, hanging in mid-air, performing his bicycle kick.
The first Panini World Cup sticker collection was made to accompany the 1970 tournament in Mexico. The first few albums weren’t released in the UK, because of European trading laws. Children in Britain had to wait until the 1978 tournament in Argentina to start collecting. Copies of those first albums sell for large sums now.
In the 1980s and 1990s – before the Premier League – live football on television was still relatively rare. World Cups were an exotic glimpse of teams and players most people had barely heard of, let alone seen play. Collecting Panini stickers was a fanatical pastime for schoolchildren up and down the country. The craze created its own vocabulary: ‘doubles’ were stickers you already had; trading them with friends turned them into ‘swapsies’; a ‘shiny’ was a portrait of a star player, or a team badge, with a silver background. My primary school playground was often full of children hunched over piles of stickers, chanting ‘got, got, need’ as they looked through each other’s stacks. Panini albums – and the quest to complete them – were as much a part of a World Cup as the matches themselves.
The 1990 World Cup in Italy is the first international tournament I remember with any real clarity. It was also the first year I bought a Panini album. England’s quarter-final against Cameroon was played as my family was travelling to Wales to see my grandparents for the summer holidays. Traffic was at a standstill. Everyone was listening to the game on their car radio. England managed to drag themselves out of the mire eventually, with Gary Lineker scoring an extra-time penalty that gave them a 3-2 victory. At the final whistle, complete strangers got out of their cars in the middle of the M4 and embraced each other.
The quality of play in World Cups these days isn’t as good as domestic club football. What still elevates the tournament in the collective imagination is, in essence, nostalgia. If one company has managed to monetise this, it’s Panini. Sticker packs for Russia 2018 have risen in price from 50p to 80p; the potential cost of completing an album is now close to £800. But the act of opening a pack of stickers is still laced with anticipation. The glimpse of a ‘shiny’ still sparks childish excitement. Getting another Phil Jones when you’ve got four already makes you wish you were back, bartering in the playground. The problem is, 28 years later, I have far fewer people to swap with.