So when Panini released its FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 edition in August, lines formed outside stores and kiosks, and Acuña was ready.
“When we started, sales were very good,” he reports. “But after a short time, the stickers began to be scarce.”
Many sold out their supplies within hours. The problem, Acuña and others say: Most of the packs were scooped up by resellers, who are offering them online at inflated prices.
“We faced this with anger, with outrage,” said Acuña, the second vice president of the Kiosk Union of the Argentine Republic. “We waited four years for this to happen and now you see them only in underground channels.”
While retailers urged patience, the union, which represents more than 112,000 kiosks in the South American country, marched to the Panini factory to ask for exclusive distribution of the stickers.
Now the government has stepped in. In September, the Ministry of Commerce called a meeting between the kiosk operators and Panini’s Argentine operation. According to Acuña, Panini agreed to boost output by up to 20 percent and impose stricter control over distribution so kiosks can get their share.
Acuña said the supply hasn’t improved: “Now it’s even worse.” At least two Argentines have filed lawsuits against the company.
Panini didn’t respond to a request for comment Thursday. Nicolás Sallustro, the marketing director for the company’s Argentine subsidiary, told the Buenos Aires newspaper Clarín last month that it was increasing production and expected to normalize supply “in the coming weeks.”
“We are working piecework and the flow and delivery of stickers is continuous,” he said. “But there is a variable that we cannot manage: The demand.”
Now kiosks throughout Argentina are displaying signs warning figurita-seekers away. Twitter users have shared photos. “Without album and stickers,” one says. “Panini betrayed us.”
The development is particularly painful in Argentina, which has emerged from one of Latin America’s strictest coronavirus lockdowns to see a resurgence of inflation this year. Soccer-proud Argentine fans are still mourning the 2020 death of national hero Diego Maradona as they look forward to what’s expected to be star Lionel Messi’s final World Cup appearance. Hopes are high for the team after it won the Copa América last year.
Panini, which produces comic books, stickers and trading cards, published its first World Cup album in 1970. The tradition has grown and spread as each new generation joins those that went before.
Sallustro blames the shortage on “the excessive euphoria of young people and adults who behave like capricious boys who attempt to fill the album as soon as possible,” Clarín reported.
“Before, five or 10 sachets were bought,” Sallustro said. “Now there are people who ask for 100.”
A Messi sticker was advertised in the commerce site for more than $100. “I’m gathering the money,” one prospective buyer commented. “How did you find it?”
“Opening thousands of packs,” the owner of the precious card responded.
Martina Sicilia, a 20-year-old student in Buenos Aires, said “I jumped off my seat” when she found her Messi card. “I have never thought about selling it.”
Collectors are sharing videos of themselves opening packs on social media. They include Marc Stanley, the U.S. ambassador to Argentina.
“Oh, holy crap. I got Messi,” he says, visibly delighted. “That’s unbelievable.”
Psychiatrist Enrique De Rosa says the craze for the stickers can’t be explained rationally.
“Mass phenomena are not rational phenomena,” he said. “Things have no value by themselves but because of what they represent in the collective scheme. And that is the case of the stickers.”
With a sluggish economy, inflation approaching 100 percent this year and an assassination attempt last month on Vice President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, Argentines might be looking for distractions.
“In a society that is depressed in every way, we allow things that would lift the spirit, even if it’s momentarily,” De Rosa said. “And most countries use soccer for this.”
Other countries have been dealing with prices that in some case are double those of the 2018 edition. In Brazil, an 8-year-old boy whose family couldn’t afford stickers or an album drew a set himself. A Globo report went viral, and dozens of people sent stickers his way.
One country not suffering a shortage: El Salvador. Two Argentine collectors posted a video of themselves finding stickers in a pharmacy there — and caught the attention of El Salvador President Nayib Bukele.
“In El Salvador, you will not only find waves, surfing, pupusas, coffee, volcanoes and a totally safe country,” Bukele boasted. “You will also find figuritas.”
Claudio Martinez, an Argentine radio host in El Salvador, saw the sticker crisis firsthand on a recent visit to Buenos Aires. “In my show La Tribu, I gave away some albums,” he said, “because in El Salvador, people can find them everywhere.”
“I wish I had some on hand when I went to Argentina,” he said. “I would’ve helped desperate friends, and after even a month they are still desperate.
“This goes beyond a passion for soccer,” he said. “Once you get the album, it’s an addiction.”