Soccer fans in Rio de Janeiro began to panic Sunday upon hearing news that a van carrying precious World Cup-related cargo had been stolen. With the tournament kicking off in Brazil in five weeks, fans were desperately awaiting the contents of that truck and were distraught at the thought of the loss.
What was the missing valuable property that caused such alarm?
Not just any stickers. Panini stickers. Thieves made off with 300,000 of them, and if you know anything about soccer, you understand why this made international headlines.
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When soccer aficionados hear the word Panini, they don’t think toasted sandwich. They think of the World Cup sticker-trading ritual that has been going on for five decades in Europe, South America and, more recently, Africa, Asia and the United States — particularly in multinational cities such as Miami.
Every four years since the 1970 World Cup, Italy-based publisher Panini releases World Cup souvenir sticker albums and sticker sets featuring 638 players expected to participate in the upcoming tournament. There are also 40 nonplayer stickers of the mascot, stadiums, trophy, ball, and team shields. The 72-page albums sell for $2 and, in the United States, the stickers come in a pack of seven for $1. (Abroad, there are only five stickers per pack, which has led South American collectors to buy them by the box in South Florida and ship them home.)
According to Jason Howarth, vice president of marketing for Panini America, Miami is currently the top-selling U.S. city for 2014 Panini World Cup stickers, followed by New York, Los Angeles, Boston and then Chicago and Washington, which are tied.
The Panini craze has reached a fever pitch in South Florida in recent weeks. A Doral Walgreens store sold 100,000 stickers during a 14-day span in April. School kids trade stickers at lunchtime. Collectors of all ages post online on craigslist and eBay and show up at weekend swap days from Palm Beach to Pinecrest in search of missing stickers they need to fill their books.
Francesco Furnari, a Davie coffee distributor who is also the main Panini distributor in Florida, said more than five million stickers were sold in South Florida for the 2010 World Cup. This time, he expects more than 12 million. Furnari is of Italian-Venezuelan descent and was introduced to the Panini stickers as a youth.
“My dad is 85, and he’s collecting along with my 11-year-old boy and 13-year-old girl,” he said. “It’s getting huge here.”
Collectors worldwide are connecting through Facebook and the Twitter hashtag #gotgotneed, posting duplicates they can trade and begging for must-have stickers.
“In 2010, U.S. retailers were not sure what to expect with our World Cup sticker collection, and big-box retailers focused on placing the collection in their top Hispanic stores, where people had a better understanding of the product,” Howarth said. “This time, it’s totally different. We are selling all over the country, and sales are off the charts.”
The 2014 albums and stickers are for sale at more than 75,000 retailers nationwide, including Walgreens, Target, Walmart, Dollar Tree, Learning Express and Toys “R” Us. In South Florida, retailers with a strong presence also include Sedano’s, Soccer Locker and Soccer Max.
In an effort to appeal to the mainstream American sports fan, Panini produced promotional videos featuring NBA star Kobe Bryant and Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck, both of whom spent their childhoods in Europe and are avid Panini sticker collectors. Bryant lived in Italy while his father, Joe, played professional basketball, and Luck lived in London and Frankfurt while his father, Oliver, was president of the World League of American Football. Oliver Luck later was the founding president of the Houston Dynamo of Major League Soccer.
“The only thing an American can compare it to is being a little kid and looking for the Babe Ruth baseball card,” said Tom Mulroy, president of the Fort Lauderdale Strikers. “That’s what’s happening with these Panini stickers. You have to have this one, you have to have that one. I thought it was just kids, and I went into my locker room with the Strikers and my guys are sitting around fighting over cards, in the office, everybody. It really is a nice thing because it breaks the generation barrier, it breaks the economic barrier. It’s been good for the sport and is fun and healthy, talking to other humans without using cellphones.”
Martin Nunez, a forward from Uruguay, was the first Strikers player to complete his album and is the envy of his teammates. In England, Arsenal’s Costa Rican forward Joel Campbell bought 100 packs of stickers (500 total) and was unable to find his No. 296 sticker, prompting fans to try and find the card for him.
Carlos Sosa and Giovanni Borgeat, eighth-graders at GW Carver Middle School in Coral Gables, completed their albums last week. They bought most of their cards at Walgreens and traded duplicates with their school friends, soccer teammates and fellow collectors at weekend swap meets. Sosa’s family is from Venezuela. Borgeat’s is from Argentina. Both have soccer passion in their blood.
“You feel so happy when you get your last sticker and complete the book, kind of like winning a soccer game,” Sosa said. “It’s a proud feeling, and you can tell all your friends. Everyone knows who completed their albums and who is still working on theirs. It’s an accomplishment.”
Sosa did most of his weekend trading at Soccer Locker in Kendall. That is where he finally tracked down the last two stickers he needed — No. 281 (Costa Rican goalie Keylor Navas) and No. 589 (Algerian forward Djamel Mesbah).
Borgeat’s most elusive stickers were No. 585 (Algerian goalie Rais M’bolhi) and No. 113 (Spanish center back Raul Albiol).
“I went to Walgreens near Brickell [Ave.] almost every day and bought packs of stickers, and then on weekends I’d go back and people would be trading outside the store,” Borgeat said. “My dad introduced me to the Panini albums in 2006, and I completed the book in 2010 and this time. Almost everyone I know who plays soccer collects them. It gets you excited for the World Cup.”
Matthew de la Osa, a fifth-grader at Pinecrest Elementary, is still working on his album.
“It can be expensive,” he said. “My friend spent $200 on stickers. But it’s really fun because you get to know the players of all the teams, not just the famous ones.”
Local retailers say sales are far exceeding 2010, the first World Cup in which Panini made a big U.S. push.
“I thought Panini stickers were big in 2010, but there’s been an even bigger explosion this time,” said Alfred Avila, owner of Soccer Max in Plantation. “It’s incredible. I have guys coming in buying entire boxes, people calling in to see when we’re hosting trading days. It’s huge. Off the charts.”
Avila said that in April he sold 19,200 packs (134,000 stickers).
Phil Caruso, a national media-relations director for Walgreens, would not release sales numbers but said: “Panini stickers in Miami-Dade and Broward counties have been well received by World Cup fans of all ages. In addition to being the first retailer to offer the stickers in Miami, each week Walgreens hosts community trading events at select stores, where enthusiastic fans come together to trade stickers and share in the excitement of the World Cup. Walgreens is now the go-to destination for Panini stickers.”
A nationwide Panini mobile tour will spend May 16-21 in Miami, and along with a promotion through Hispanic newspapers — including El Nuevo Herald — the company will give away three million free sticker albums and more than 30 million free stickers.
As for the soccer fans in Rio de Janeiro, they can rest easy that the stolen stickers will not create a problem. The Panini company promptly put out this statement: “Panini can state that the city of Rio de Janeiro is well supplied and there is no shortage of official Panini products for sale.”
One less thing for Brazil to worry about as it prepares to host the world next month.