Sure, people say Panini is small of stature, almost paper-thin. Others scoff that Panini is just two-dimensional.
Panini has never kicked a ball in anger. Panini has never lunged to stop a certain goal. Panini has never lifted the World Cup trophy after vanquishing all others.
But, in the pantheon of World Cup history, Panini ranks right up there with Pelé, Maradona, Beckenbauer and Zidane.
Panini happens to be the name of the company that makes World Cup stickers. It has the kind of appeal, or a peel, that none of the game’s greats can touch.
Fans all over the world collect, trade, peel and stick the 2ƒ-inch-by-2-inch stickers every four years. For the second straight Cup, the stickers are available in the United States.
They have become so popular in Colombia that people huddle on street corners trying to swap their duplicates in hopes of scaling the Mount Everest-size task of completing a set.
While the Panini phenomenon hasn’t hit those heights in the U.S. — yet — Americans are beginning to get attached to the little guys.
Between catching flights in Atlanta on Sunday on my way to the World Cup in Brazil, I met an airport employee who said his son was collecting them.
The look on his face was the kind you see when you open up a pack and get a Lionel Messi, and the employee wasn’t even the one collecting the stickers.
“I couldn’t believe it when we saw them at Kroger,” the man said.
In Tucson, stickers can be found at places ranging from Target and Michaels to Toys “R” Us.
Believe me, I know. I’ve been scouring for them for more than a month before the 20th World Cup begins Thursday.
The Panini bug bit me in 1982 — you could say I’ve been glued to them ever since — but the idea was born 22 years earlier. Brothers Benito and Giuseppe Panini ran newsstands in Modena, Italy. The first envelopes featured Italian club players, were filled by hand, and included a soccer ball that could be blown up. In 1970, the brothers debuted their first World Cup edition.
Over the years, the stickers haven’t changed that much. They’re simple — a tightly cropped head shot of a player, accompanied by a flag logo and a little bit of information.
That first set I collected in 1982 was about more than just the stickers to me, although the tactile fun of placing them in the accompanying album is always a kick.
Those 1982 stickers gave me an education in soccer, fashion, geography, language and unique spelling.
I was entranced by names such as Pietro Vierchowod, Wlodzimierz Smolarek, Hans-Peter Briegel, Laszlo Kiss, Jean-Amadou Tigana and Zico.
I was amazed by their hair — the amazing curly locks of Argentina’s Alberto Cesar Tarantini that almost took up the whole frame of the sticker, the standout sideburns of Peru’s Jose Velasquez, the mustache of Brazil’s Socrates that harkened back to the days of the Frito Bandito.
I learned things like Austria is called Osterreich in its native language. I became familiar with where Czechoslovakia was on the map. I found out how many times El Salvador had made the World Cup.
I particularly cherished the sticker of Cameroon goalkeeper Thomas N’Kono. I look back at that sticker these days and remember that he gave up just one goal in three matches of that World Cup, yet he and the Indomitable Lions were eliminated without losing a match in the first round.
I also see the stickers of players past who turned into famous coaches and lost much of their hair over the last three decades.
Fortunately for me, I haven’t lost much hair … or my enthusiasm for Panini stickers.