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Starting about two months before the first kick-off launches FIFA’s World Cup, every Peruvian family gathering involves at least two people exchanging small rectangular stickers with a player’s face photoshopped onto a jersey. Just the other night, at my best friend’s birthday lonche, I sat with a cousin, each going through the other’s stack of repetidas seeing if we had any to exchange. “Ya la, No la” (“Got It, Don’t Got it”) are the phrases that continue to define each stack of cards every time a Panini album is being completed, whether you’re 5, 10, 25, 45, or 65. Within every age group, people walk around with their stack of stickers hidden in a secret pocket of their purse, tucked into their back pocket, held together by a rubber band.

IMG_2756The Panini editorial group was founded in 1961 in Modena, Italy, after two brothers bought a sticker collection that had failed to succeed in the market. They decided to sell these stickers in packets to “add the element of surprise” and were wildly successful. Soon thereafter, they launched World Cup sticker albums, which also became popular. They began to sell the stickers internationally in the 1970s and they now have 21 branches in different countries. My album illustrates just this—I bought the book in Bolivia, am now exchanging stickers in Peru, and am waiting on my mother to bring me more stickers from Brazil. In a FIFA TV video, they state that an average of 1 billion 5-sticker packets are produced annually for Panini’s sticker albums.

Google tells me that there is now a Panini World Cup album fever in the United States (at least in South Florida), which is really exciting, but that wasn’t the case when I was little. While I lived in the United States, I experienced two World Cups—Germany 2006 and South Africa 2010. In a country where I could share soccer as a by being part of a couple of teams growing up (and loving Bend it Like Beckham along with every other soccer-playing girl), the World Cup was an easy medium through which to share the sport with my non-teammates who normally did not pay attention to it. Yet, the album was still not an easy thing to share when the sticker supply was limited to my mother, who still travelled to Latin America regularly. Both World Cups, she brought back my brother and me a paqueton, the 500-sticker box with accompanying albums. We would split the box and then see if there were any duplicates between each other. Our game ended there. This global phenomenon was so local for us that it stayed in our family room. Our albums remained half-filled. 

DSCN2698The World Cup is now upon us. I have 73 out of 639 stickers to go, and honestly, I’m convinced Peru has no stickers of the Iran team anywhere. Out of 13 stickers per team, I am missing 11. Panini assures that they print the same amount per player so that there is no inequality in value, but I’m not convinced. Neither is Costa Rican forward, Joel Campbell, who looked for himself in 100 packets and failed. The online Colombian newspaper Pulzo did a study to try to figure out which of the stickers are the hardest to find. The bias must be regional though, because (brush my shoulders off), I already have all the ones they mention. Some friends are already on their second album (jerks), with their first album all tucked away to share with future generations. But, why not have a second album? Why stop playing and together preparing for one of, if not the most, culturally important sports event of the world? 

It’s not cheap though. Every time I go to a grocery store I buy between 5 and 10 packets at 1.20 soles each (about 50 cents, which means I spend an extra $2.50 to $5 a trip— I have a small bike basket so I go to the grocery store kind of often). Someone (I’m not going to link the same FIFA TV video again, but you can scroll up and click on that) made a calculation that it would take 4,505 stickers to make sure you got a complete album. That’s 901 packets. That’s $387.80 if you’re collecting in Peru. Each packet is a dollar in the US, so for you Americans it’s going to cost you $901. 

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But your social network gets you around your economic limitations. I would venture to say that in some way, at least for a short period of time, the World Cup album defines your circle. The exchange of 20 stickers for one, or even the gift of 100, reminds me of the generosity of the gift culture of Latin America. Here, have all of the players you’re still missing from the Mexican soccer team. Don’t forget, we’re family. Next time you get some more duplicate stickers, let me know. I might need them. Oh, there’s also now a virtual album, but whatever. 

My mom tells me how her older brother would take her to the market when she was little and haggle with the kiosk owners to get her the cards she needed at a cheaper prices. There are also some people that take their duplicates after they’re done collecting to schools in poorer neighborhoods. 

Another option, if you don’t want to spend money, is to go to the citywide meet-ups for album enthusiasts. Last week, I went to one in a mall in Camacho, a neighborhood 20 minutes away from my house for one of these events and was met by a crowd of over 100 people. I stupidly forgot all my duplicate stickers, but after buying 10 packets (and taking out the 10 that weren’t duplicates), I was armed with 40 square broad-shouldered jerseyed men to trade. I came out with 67 stickers that I didn’t already have. The whole experience saw me transform from an egalitarian (“everyone should finish collecting their album, let me see what you need”) to a ruthless capitalist, demanding 5 stickers in exchange for my 1 holographic sticker (remember, no one sticker is harder to find than another, says Panini) in a matter of hours. 

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At the meet-up, there was a stand where people who had 5 or fewer stickers could go and use a microphone to shout their sticker numbers, hoping someone would get close to them. There were also raffles and stuff like that for jerseys, but I wasn’t paying too much attention because I was so taken by the crowd. There were little kids with their parents. There were teenagers making out with their stickers in hand. One young man with a briefcase had more than 1000 duplicates and exchanged the ones I needed for stickers he already had. Who knows what he was going to do with them. There was an old couple, the man doing the transaction and the woman writing down the trade. There was one girl with her caretaker who claimed she kept track of which ones she needed because she could remember the players’ faces. 

As I finish this article, I remember that I bought 10 new sticker packets at the grocery store last night. I’m back in Peru, and looking forward to actually completing my album for Brazil 2014. In a country where I rarely get invited to pick-up games thanks to the simple virtue of being a girl, the supply of stickers is high and available to everyone. A couple of weeks ago at work, I sent out an email to see if anyone else was putting together an album. The twenty-somethings in the group, myself included, were regressing. Our first World Cup as adults and we wanted to be 10-year-olds again, dragging our parents and babysitters to the mercado because we had already looked through all our friends’ stacks. The thirty-somethings were running a business, “Oh, I have 20 you might need? Buy me a candy bar in the afternoon and I’ll send those over to you.” And the oldest were trading for their kids, “Really? You’ll give me those 30 for free? You have no idea how many hugs my hijo will give me when he receives them.”

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Natalia Piland studied Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Cornell University and is currently the Amazon Program Officer at the Wildlife Conservation Society.

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