SAO PAULO: The frenzy over the World Cup sticker album has taken over Brazil like never before.
Brazilians have long been avid fans of World Cup albums, but this year there's added motivation with football's showcase event coming to their own backyard.
Everybody is talking stickers, from kids to grown-ups and students to doctors. Even Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff has joined in the fun.
Fans have set up trading places in front of stadiums, plazas and bookstores to swap their stickers and try to complete their sets. Some are hardcore collectors, others just for the thrill of it. Some are helping their kids, others are challenging their work colleagues.
Brazil led all countries in sales during the 2010 World Cup and this time numbers are already better than they were four years ago, according to the FIFA-picked company in charge of the album, Italy-based Panini. The stickers are sold in more than 100 nations, with South America being the top market. Germany and Switzerland were the top countries in sales after Brazil in 2010, Panini said.
"The last time I did this was when I was just a little kid, but with the World Cup coming to Brazil there was no way I was going to pass up on this one. The World Cup is here and this album will be historic," said 32-year-old Fernando da Silva, who was trying to complete his second album at a trading point in front of the Pacaembu Stadium in Sao Paulo. "This brings back all memories from when I used to swap stickers with my friends at school."
Hundreds of people have been going to the Pacaembu every weekend, as well as to other trading places across Brazil's largest city, including supermarkets, cafes and malls. The city's main art museum, MASP, is one of the most popular places for enthusiasts, attracting groups of teenagers, couples and entire families looking to swap their stickers.
There are many Internet groups devoted to people wanting to swap their stickers, and countless apps are at the disposal of fans looking for those hard-to-come-by stickers. There's even a virtual album created by Panini.
"This time it has been really easy to find the stickers because everybody has an album," said Inez Carvalho Oliveira, a 28-year-old pediatrician who was at the Pacaembu to try to find the 13 stickers still needed for her album.
Right next to her, 60-year-old Jucileia Lobato hastily gazed through a pack of duplicates, checking on the missing numbers from her list.
"I started helping my grandkids when they bought the album because of the World Cup, and I liked it so much that I decided to buy one for myself," she said, still looking at the stickers. "But I have to hurry because my husband is waiting in the car .. I just want to find a few more stickers."
President Rousseff told journalists she is helping her 3-year-old grandson complete his set.
This year's album hasn't been free of controversy, however. Some fans were upset that nine stickers from sponsors were put on sale in Brazil, and Panini was forced to release a statement saying that it would exchange them for other stickers at no cost.
The 649 stickers needed to complete the 80-page album include some players who won't actually feature at the World Cup, as well as photos of unfinished venues thanks to Brazil's delayed preparations. Brazil is one of the squads with mistakes, as Robinho's sticker was included in the album but he was not picked for the World Cup team. The same happened to Ronaldinho's sticker in 2010.
Panini has been in charge of the official World Cup album since the 1970 tournament in Mexico. It has two printing facilities, one in Brazil to handle sales for the Latin American market and another in Italy to handle sales for the rest of the world.
FIFA marketing director Thierry Weil said the album gives football's governing body a way to "promote the FIFA World Cup and fuel fans' excitement ahead of the event all over the world."
"It has been very pleasing to see the interest from fans in collecting the stickers," he said, adding that more than 1 million users had already signed up for the virtual album alone.
In Brazil, Panini said it distributed 6.5 million free albums in marketing actions that began in April. FIFA said in a video on its website that fans would need to purchase 4,505 stickers to ensure a complete album. Each pack with five stickers costs 1 real in Brazil, or about $0.45.
"These albums bring people together," said 55-year-old computer science specialist Jan Mascarenhas, who was "a South Korean player away" from completing his set. "We are swapping stickers but we are also swapping experiences."
Mascarenhas' missing player, sticker No. 628, Shin Kwang-Hoon, didn't even make it to South Korea's World Cup squad.
"I don't know anything about the guy, but I need him badly," he said.