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Italy not in the World Cup? No sweat, the game is still on for Panini stickers

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Open a pack of five machine-packed stickers, paste them in an album and swop your spares with others. Even in this digital age, many still want a physical sticker album of their football heroes.

Modena, Italy

AS WORLD Cup fever builds, the Panini sticker factory in Italy is working flat out to cope with the demand, churning out anywhere between eight and 10 million packets a day.

Each packet, which costs S$1.20 in Singapore, contains five randomly inserted stickers, including the coveted ones of Argentina star Lionel Messi, Brazilian striker Neymar and Portugal captain Cristiano Ronaldo.

With Panini, Italy are guaranteed not to miss out on the World Cup in Russia - even if their team will not be competing at football's most glamorous event.

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Created in 1960 by the four Panini brothers, the business has an exclusive contract with world football's governing body Fifa and its first World Cup album dates all the way back to 1970.

Over the past five decades, the principle has never changed: you open the packets, paste the stickers inside your album, and exchange your spares with others who need them.

Simona Spiaggia, head of production at the factory in Modena in central Italy told AFP: "It's the simplicity that pays. Panini has never been in crisis because it's a simple game enjoyed by parents and children."

Even four-time champions Italy's absence from the World Cup for the first time in 60 years has not dented booming sales.

Ms Spiaggia added: "No, it's marginal. We produce for the entire world, apart from a part of Latin America, because we have another factory in Brazil. But for the rest of the world, everything is done here. So Italy represents just a small part."

This year's album contains the images of all 32 teams participating in the World Cup. There are about 670 different stickers to collect in order to complete the collection.

The stickers are nowon sale in Singapore at S$1.20 a pack, and S$3.90 for a starter kit that comes with an album and one pack.

Since last January, the machines - which have remained unchanged since the 1960s - cut, mix and package at a faster rate than normal with the number of factory employees having jumped from 130 to 240 to keep pace with the growing demand.

Ms Spiaggia said: "We have production peaks every two years with the European Championship and the World Cup. But that of the World Cup is a little higher."

And despite other partnership deals, notably with Disney, and inroads into cycling and basketball, football "still represents the largest part of our business", she said.

Even competition from Internet collections has not yet threatened or diminished the appeal of the traditional paper album.

"We're going forward with online. But it's a bit like books, some move to e-books, others will always prefer paper and that's the same for our collectors."

Fans will be searching avidly for stars including the likes of Neymar, Messi and Ronaldo - stickers which may seem rarer, but which in fact are not.

"If they're rare, it's because they are more sought after. There are fewer in circulation because they're not being exchanged, but not at the start."

In the end, it is all down to chance and the shuffle of the machines. That is the one thing that has changed from the early days, when the mix was done with a shovel by throwing the stickers against the wall. AFP