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’

A model of a Neanderthal man on display at the National Museum of Prehistory in Dordogne, France
Richard Dawkins dedicated his book 'The Greatest Show on Earth' to Josh Timonen
newsThat's Richard Dawkins on babies with Down Syndrome
Arts and Entertainment
Eye of the beholder? 'Concrete lasagne' Preston bus station
architectureWhich monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Dinosaurs Unleashed at the Eden Project
Arts and Entertainment
Life and Style
This month marks the 20th anniversary of the first online sale
techDespite a host of other online auction sites and fierce competition from Amazon, eBay is still the most popular e-commerce site in the UK
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating

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

Day In a Page

Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
7 best quadcopters and drones

Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home