Saturday 21 June 2014

Panini's World Cup 'Nearly Men'

Question: What connects the following football players? Andy Gray, Carlos Alberto, Ruud Gullit, Kenny Dalglish, Eder, Phil Neville and Robert Pires.

Need a few more clues? How about Steven Gerrard, Roberto Bettega, Dan Petrescu, Fabrizio Ravanelli and David Beckham?

The answer? They've all appeared in a Panini World Cup sticker album but failed to appear in the World Cup tournament it was commemorating.

It happens more often than you think and for good reason. As if to officially begin the countdown to a World Cup tournament, Panini launch their official sticker collections several weeks in advance. It gives you ample opportunity to familiarise yourself with all the names and faces waiting to create a patchwork of footballing wonderment in front of your very eyes in the days to come.

This is a decent gesture on the part of Panini, however it comes at a cost. By launching their World Cup sticker albums so early, Panini can't tell for certain which players will feature in the official 23-man squads when they're announced. Not only that, but they're hardly in a position to tell which players will get injured just prior to the tournament, either.

All they can do is take an educated guess as to which players will get the nod when the World Cup arrives. It's a thankless task because on virtually every page of their World Cup sticker albums you'll find someone that never actually figured in the World Cup for that year.

Take Panini's 2014 World Cup album, for instance. Inside you'll see Robinho of Brazil, Arbeloa of Spain, Van der Vaart of the Netherlands, Ribery of France and Ashley Cole of England... yet none of them are playing their part in this year's competition.

So how long has this been happening, and just how inaccurate are Panini's World Cup albums? To find out, I leafed through the pages of every edition from Mexico 70 to World Cup 2014, checking and cross-referencing each of the 4,895 individual player stickers with the 304 official squad lists from each of the 12 competitions.

Overall accuracy

The details that emerged make interesting reading. Overall, 14% of all the players that feature on Panini World Cup stickers don't actually appear in their national squad for the relevant tournament. To put it another way, if every two-page team spread currently displays 17 player stickers, 2.4 of them would be included erroneously.

Whether that figure seems quite high is a matter for personal judgement, but it is fair to say that this is just a straight average. Some albums have had an admirable record for accuracy while others have been less successful. Here's a graph showing the number of players correctly/incorrectly included in each one:

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Back in the  Mexico 70 album, there were only 192 player stickers - only 35% of the amount you'd find in the 2014 equivalent - but Panini got 90.9% of those players right. Over the next two albums, that figure slipped to around 83% before the accuracy level rose again steadily to the all-time high of 91.8% for the Italia '90 album.

Again, the number of wrongly-featured players for the World Cup increased sharply and the France 98 album contained the highest number of 'nearly men' of all, accounting for 18% of all those in the album - nearly one in five. Since then, the accuracy levels have bounced back slowly, tournament on tournament, which perhaps you'd expect in an age where up-to-date information is available everywhere.

Team accuracy

So just how difficult is it for Panini to get an entire team completely correct? More difficult than you think. In that first album for Mexico 70, four of the sixteen teams were entirely made up of players that did make it into the final squads for the tournament. This 25% success rate was as good as it ever got. For USA '94 and World Cup 2006, none of the 24 and 32 teams respectively were without wrongly featured players.

Click for larger version
You might also be wondering which teams have contained the most errors throughout the 44 years of Panini's World Cup sticker collections. For that, you have to look at the Cameroon team as shown in the France 98 album. Sixteen players were available to collect, but nine of them never actually made the trip to the 16th World Cup. Many other teams have been similarly replete with wrongly-included players down the years, including Australia's six-man contingent in the Mexico 70 album, two of whom didn't warrant an inclusion.

Cameroon in Panini's France 98 album: Bad at crosses
In a cumulative sense, Cameroon haven't fared too well in Panini World Cup history. They've had 115 players appearing in seven albums, but 23 of them didn't feature in the relevant tournament - an accuracy rate of 80%. Still, that's not as bad as Togo whose only appearance in 2006 saw five of their 17 players featured under false pretences - an accuracy rate of only 71%.

Click for larger version
At the other end of the scale, five teams have made a single and entirely correct appearance in a Panini World Cup album, namely Haiti (1974), Jamaica (1998), Kuwait (1982), North Korea (2010) and Zaire (1974). Of those that have appeared in more than one album, Slovenia lead the way with 31 correctly included players out of 32 across the 2002 and 2010 tournaments.

Click for larger version
Player accuracy

Finally, let us consider the humble player. Exactly how would you feel if you'd appeared in one of Panini's highly acclaimed World Cup sticker albums but never actually been part of the squad that played in the tournament? 'Mixed emotions' is a phrase that springs to mind.

Imagine that moment when, in your senior years, your grandchild finds an old Panini album in the loft and says "Wow Grandpa - you actually played in the World Cup!" Could you look him or her in the eye and admit your dirty secret?

Well let's take that one step further. Imagine you'd appeared in TWO Panini World Cup sticker albums but never played in either competition. Serious embarrassment, and yet there is a select band of 21 international players who share that pain. Their names, writ large for all eternity to observe, are as follows:

  • Rhys Williams (Australia, 2010 and 2014)
  • Mauro Silva (Brazil, 1998 and 2002)
  • Bernard Tchoutang (Cameroon, 1998 and 2002)
  • Sebastian Deisler (Germany, 2002 and 2006)
  • Pavel Pardo (Mexico, 2002 and 2010)
  • Dumisane Ngobe (South Africa, 1998 and 2002)
  • Talal Al-Meshal (Saudi Arabia, 2002 and 2006)
  • Al Temawi (Saudi Arabia 1994 and 1998)
  • Johan Vonlanthen (Switzerland, 2006 and 2010)
  • Chris Henderson (USA, 1994 and 1998)
  • Fedor Cherenkov (Soviet Union, 1986 and 1990)
  • Christoffer Andersson (Sweden, 2002 and 2006)
  • Aldo De Nigris (Mexico, 2010 and 2014)
  • Lee Dong-Gook (South Korea, 2002 and 2006)
  • Julio Cesar Enciso (Paraguay, 2002 and 2006)
  • Josep Guardiola (Spain, 1998 and 2002)
  • Mustapha Khali (Morocco, 1994 and 1998)
  • Dimitar Popov (Bulgaria, 1994 and 1998)
  • Eric Tinkler (South Africa, 1998 and 2002)
  • John Jairo Trellez (Colombia, 1990 and 1994)
  • Javier Zanetti (Argentina, 2006 and 2010)
It can even cross generations. When Klaus Sammer appeared in the Munich 74 album for East Germany (but not in the 1974 World Cup itself), little did he know his son, Matthias, would suffer the same fate when representing Germany in the 1998 album.

It's a tricky business trying to produce a factually correct sticker album, but Panini have managed to get it mostly right most of the time. Of the 4,895 players that have appeared in their World Cup collections, 686 didn't make the short trip from album to tournament - a potent reminder that football, like life, doesn't always transpire as you think. Not that it will come as any consolation to anyone possessing several doubles of the 1998 Cameroon team.


  1. It shows what a challenge it is for Panini. I imagine the time-scale of the layout, the stickers being produced and then finally distributed means it's done quite a way in advance. I wonder though where they get the info from, do they take a stab at it themselves, or are they given lists by national federations?

    1. Quite right, Neil. It's an unenviable task for sure.

      They must receive lists from local journalists in each country or something. That's the only way I can think of.

  2. Who are the other Czech/Czechoslovakian player other than Lubomir Vlk that were in the album but didn't go to the World Cup?

    Robin Z.

    1. Hi Robin,

      In answer to your question, it was Vladimír Šmicer who didn't go to the 2006 World Cup.

      Regards, Chris O.

  3. Hi Chris,

    Do you have a list of all the players included in the 2006, 2010 and 2014 albums that didn't make the final squads?

    1. I do, Mark - I've put the details in this document for you:

      Hope that answers your question... :)

  4. Hi which player has appeared in the most sticker collections