One day, a letter came for Umberto. The postage stamp indicated that it had been sent from Italy, the country of his birth, the country he’d left to start a new life across the Atlantic in Venezuela in 1957.
A talented engineer, Umberto had been fired by Maserati, the car company whose factory he’d worked in back in Modena, his hometown. He’d been caught ‘talking’ to the foreman’s lover and was sacked almost on the spot. And so with that off he went to South America to work on the oil wells.
As Umberto opened the letter, he knew who it was from. The handwriting and signature was familiar. It was one of Umberto’s three brothers, Giuseppe’s. “Come back to Italy. We need you,” he wrote. “America is here now.”
Italy did feel like an land of opportunity at that time. Through the '50s and early '60s the old country was booming. An economic miracle was being performed. Growth was sustained. Life was good. Business great.
Umberto’s family were running a news-stand in Modena’s Corso Duomo. It was while working on it that Giuseppe and his other sibling Benito had an idea. Their customers read about football in the pink pages of La Gazzetta dello Sport. They spoke about it and listened to broadcasts of games on the radio in nearby bars. Why not try and capitalise on that passion, they thought?
It was decided that they’d produce an album, a sticker album. The prototype, 'Calciatori 1960-61', didn’t see the light of day. It was only rediscovered years later. The first one proper came out ahead of the following season. Featured on the front was an illustration of Milan’s Nils Liedholm heading the ball. It was a phenomenon. The albums flew out of the shops. People came back again and again for le figu, the stickers.
They couldn’t keep up with the demand. And that’s why in 1964 Giuseppe reached out to Umberto. Could he help them? Benito was handling the distribution. Franco the admin. But they needed an engineer. Heeding Giuseppe’s call, Umberto returned and invented the Fifimatic, a remarkable piece of machinery that cut, mixed and packaged the stickers. No one could compete.
By now, you’ve probably guessed that this is the story of the Panini family, who rank among Italy’s great entrepreneurs of the 20th century. The business remained a family affair until 1988 and has gone through many owners since then, including the Marvel Entertainment Group, before being brought back under Italian ownership in 1999. Just last year it turned over €637m (£527m) and was operating in 110 countries.
I mention all this because Umberto passed away at the weekend. He was 83 and the only brother still alive. The Paninis leave a great cultural legacy. Their name is known all over the world, but in Italy it has a particular resonance. Up and down the country, in its oratories and piazzas, kids held stacks of stickers in their hands and went through them together. “Ce l’ho.” Got that one. “Ce lo manca.” Missing that one. It was a refrain heard for generations and one that is still heard today.
Completing the pages of your team and the album as a whole was immensely satisfying. People’s experience of football was enhanced by doing so. “There was time to learn the names of Pisa’s reserves, that exotic team of magnificent colours,” wrote the social commentator Beppe Severgnini in Il Corriere della Sera.
Inter’s midfielder and captain Bruno Bolchi is arguably remembered more for being the first Panini sticker ever produced in 1961-62 than for winning the Scudetto the following season. Otherwise undistinguished players became household names too as Le Introvabili, literally The Unfindables. Novara’s rugged defender Giovanni Udovicich, he of the bald head and handlebar moustache, was one. Juventus libero Ernesto Castano and a member of La Grande Inter, Gianfranco Bedin, the others.
The most famous of all, however, was the Atalanta goalkeeper Pierluigi Pizzaballa. He’d got injured and wasn’t present when Panini sent their photographers to Bergamo to take the players’ pictures ahead of the 1963-64 season. The album went to the printers without a sticker to go with his name. One was only put into circulation months later.
Old Panini stickers remain collectible. There isn’t an equivalent of the Honus Wagner, the most famous baseball card in the world once owned by ice hockey legend Wayne Gretzky, which appreciated to nearly $3m in value. The record for one, bizarrely enough, is the €120 a punter paid on eBay for a sticker from the 1967-68 edition, which is of Padova’s former German-born striker Faustino Goffi. Browse on the internet and you’ll find a complete copy of the first 61-62 album is valued at €2,499.
They’re a thing of beauty. The faces on the stickers change from season to season and with them the styles of the shirts and hair, but one player has been on the front cover since 1965. His name is Carlo Parola. He won the Scudetto twice with Juventus, but that’s not what he is famous for. He is famous for executing the perfect scissor-kick in a game against Fiorentina on January 15, 1950. Parola didn’t score - he was clearing the ball from his own penalty area in the 80th minute of a goalless draw - but aesthetically it was perfection.
The photographer Corrado Bianchi captured it on camera from the byline. It would be used by the artist Wainer Vaccari as the basis of a commission from Panini to come up with a symbol for their albums. He didn’t need to do much. Just paint his subject in a neutral football kit. It would feature on the front cover of more than 200m copies printed worldwide making Parola’s iconic scissor-kick immortal.
Panini didn’t just produce albums or stickers, you see. They taught us about the game and about the society of the time. People didn’t have very much then. They didn’t have the unlimited choices they do today. “There was an album, a formation, a league, a kick-off time; managing not to find out the result until the evening was an objective that gave sense to a Sunday,” wrote Severgnini, "With respect to today’s Italy that one wasn’t better: it was different. We shouldn’t pine for it nor go chasing after it: you trip up running backwards. But we should remember it: because the past still has something to teach us.”
The adhesive of memory is not as strong as that of some Panini stickers. Umberto and his brothers' album may be finished but their work remains glued to Italy’s popular consciousness and hopefully won’t be forgotten.