The Via Manzanares shopping centre in the northern suburb of Pilar outside Buenos Aires is an old-style ring of stores around a modest parking lot that usually services a countryside area dotted with gated communities and polo clubs, in a country that boasts the best polo players in the world.
There’s a small supermarket, a bicycle shop, a sushi delivery store, a coffee shop and not much more, except for a sleepy mutt named Canela who’ll amble up for a pat on the head from the shoppers stopping by for a pack of beer, a quick espresso or to order a tray of nigiri.
But in recent days its peace has been disturbed by fans not of polo, but of football. A large quantity of kids and adults stood patiently waiting in line outside its sweet shop, desperate to buy “figuritas”, football player stickers similar to US baseball cards.
The object is to fill the traditional Panini World Cup album that is a ritual of almost religious significance that repeats itself every four years in Argentina when the World Cup tournament rolls around. The stickers come in sealed packs and there is no assurance collectors will find the players they need to complete the album. Sold in countries around the world, an English-language version in the UK will cost fans an average of about £870 to fill.
With the Qatar games fast approaching, Argentina has gone into a dizzy whirl that is outdoing by a wide stride any previous sticker furore in a country that breathes, dreams and lives football.
“I can’t handle the amount of people wanting stickers,” said the attendant at the Via Manzanares sweet shop early in the week, before having to inform her distraught customers that she had run out of packs on Thursday.
Sticker mania has swept over Argentina like a tsunami this year, creating a scarcity on the sticker market that has quite literally become an affair of state.
Sweet shops, known here as “quioscos”, have been the traditional outlet for sticker packs, but this year Panini began supplying the stickers to other outlets such as supermarkets and gas stations, provoking howls of protest from sweet shop owners.
Trade secretary Matías Tombolini was forced to call a meeting with Panini executives and sweet shop representatives to try to solve a scarcity that has led to media-reported threats from some parents to sue Panini because of the anguish the scarcity has been causing their children.
“The meeting has begun to assess the situation of the World Cup figuritas market,” the trade secretary tweeted, offering to “make our legal and technical teams available to collaborate in the search for possible solutions.”
But with inflation out of control and poverty snapping at the heels of an ever-widening segment of society, the government’s intervention backfired badly. There was a social media uproar against the authorities distracting state resources to solve the stickers problem and the government abruptly suspended its intervention.
The hardest sticker to find is that of Argentina’s ace player Lionel Messi, who will reportedly be playing his last World Cup at the Qatar games.
Marc R Stanley, the US ambassador to Argentina, posted an ecstatic Twitter video of himself opening up his sticker packages. “Oh holy crap, I got Messi, I can’t believe it. That’s unbelievable. I got Messi! All right, Messi, you’re mine!”
Apart from Italian-owned Panini allowing the stickers to be sold at other venues than just sweet shops, the scarcity is being blamed on distributors who are reportedly bypassing traditional outlets to sell directly in wholesale amounts to individual buyers, sometimes online.
This seems to have led to hoarding by mass buyers who then hawk the stickers on the online shopping site Mercado Libre for up to 10 times their suggested retail price of slightly under one dollar a pack.
With inflation heading for 100% this year and the recent assassination attempt on vice-president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, which failed when the assailant’s gun failed to fire, perhaps Argentina was in need of some light distraction, and the sticker scarcity seems to fit the bill.