Alex Bellos on World Cup 2014: How collecting Panini stickers has taken off in Brazil

They have become a subtle form of protest for the football-loving but government-hating fans on the street

When I lived in Rio de Janeiro you couldn’t hide from the World Cup. In the weeks preceding the tournament, yellow and green ribbons hung from most buildings, every shop, office and bar was draped with flags, and murals appeared on pavements and walls throughout the city.

This year things are very different. The murals are absent. The ribbons are few and far between. The party atmosphere is subdued. Even though Brazil are World Cup hosts, the residents of Rio seem less excited about the event than they ever have been before.

Except in one way: a booming national obsession with collecting Panini football stickers. “If we painted murals in the streets like we did before, it would give the idea that we support the government, that we are happy with the way they have spent public money,” said Jose Carlos Novello, who runs a newspaper kiosk that has already sold 70,000 packets of stickers. “But we aren’t happy with them. So we haven’t painted the streets, and we are getting ready for the World Cup in our own way. The stickers are our way of having a party.”

Newspaper kiosks and shopping malls across Brazil have become hubs of activity for swapping “figurinhas”, the little figures, Brazilian Portuguese for football stickers. “I’ve never seen anything like it before,” said Daniela Velho, 41, a mother of two, sitting by a kiosk near Ipanema beach. “It’s not just boys and their fathers, it’s the only thing that all the mums in the neighbourhood are talking about too. Look at my phone – the only messages I get now are my friends asking which ones I have to swap.”

I visited the busiest swap spot in Rio’s city centre, where more than a thousand people show up every day. During one lunchtime earlier this week the pavement was crowded with more than 200 adults, each holding pieces of paper with the numbers written down of the stickers they wanted. Only a few said they were getting the stickers for their children, most said they were swapping for themselves.

Lucas Gabriel, 22, a shop assistant, said that collecting stickers was the only way to channel his passion for football before the World Cup began. “People are really dissatisfied with the government. The stolen money. The roads that never got built. But we want to take part in the World Cup, and the most authentic way to do this is with the stickers.”

Football stickers are not new in Brazil, but the level of interest in them has rocketed this year. Panini does not say how many it has sold, only that their initial print run was 8.5 million stickers compared to a total of five million in 2010.

“It’s not surprising that more people want them this year,” said Diego Abrantes, 28, a businessman. “We all love football, and we want to have something to remember the World Cup in Brazil.”

He echoed the prevailing view that the World Cup organisers had betrayed ordinary people, but he added that this did not mean he had fallen out of love with the World Cup itself. “It’s like when your wife cheats on you – you are upset but you keep on loving her. We have a complicated relationship with football.”

World Cup booty: the assembly line of a Panini factory World Cup booty: the assembly line of a Panini factory  

The unprecedented interest in collecting stickers has stimulated the informal economy. Collectors who have no time to swap can buy individual stickers from street sellers like Alan Cidri, 41, who buys boxes of them wholesale and sells albums for Br$230 (£60) and individual players from pennies up to pounds.

“Neymar is the most expensive, at Br$8 [£2.10],” he said. “Everyone wants him. The other Brazilians are Br$2, and if you want someone from Croatia or Mexico, they are only Br$0.30.” (He’ll sell you an England player for Br$0.50.) Alan said the stickers are in such demand that he earns well, taking home a good deal more than his peers who are bus drivers. “There are probably more than 200 street sellers now just in Rio who are making a living from reselling individual stickers,” he said.

The message from the centre of Rio is that its residents are looking forward to the World Cup, even though they have not decked their streets out for a party like they usually do. “What has happened is that people have separated the football part of the World Cup from the organisational part,” said Charles Gomes, 40, an accountant. “We don’t want to do anything in public that looks like we agree with what has been done. But as soon as the World Cup begins, of course we will get behind the team.”

Lucas Gabriel added that he had thought about supporting another team in the World Cup, as a personal protest, but he knows that as soon as Brazil v Croatia kicks of this afternoon he will be cheering on Brazil just like he has done in all the previous cups.

“Of course I will. This is Brazil,” he said.

Alex Bellos is the  author of ‘Futebol: The Brazilian  Way of Life’

News
One father who couldn't get One Direction tickets for his daughters phoned in a fake bomb threat and served eight months in a federal prison
people... (and one very unlucky giraffe)
Sport
sportSo, how closely were you paying attention during 2014?
Arts and Entertainment
Dennis speaks to his French teacher
tvThe Boy in the Dress, TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that? The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year

Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that?

The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year
Hollande's vanity project is on a high-speed track to the middle of nowhere

Vanity project on a high-speed track to nowhere

France’s TGV network has become mired in controversy
Sports Quiz of the Year

Sports Quiz of the Year

So, how closely were you paying attention during 2014?
Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry, his love of 'Bargain Hunt', and life as a llama farmer

Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry and his love of 'Bargain Hunt'

From Armstrong and Miller to Pointless
Sanchez helps Gunners hold on after Giroud's moment of madness

Sanchez helps Gunners hold on

Olivier Giroud's moment of madness nearly costs them
A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect