Credit...Luis Robayo/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Sticker Shock: How Messi and the Market Fed a Collectible Crisis

In Argentina, white-hot demand for a beloved World Cup collectible has produced long lines, surging prices and, briefly, government intervention.

Follow live coverage of England vs. Senegal and to follow teams that have advanced to the knockout stage, see our World Cup bracket page.

BUENOS AIRES — As prices continued to rise, Argentina’s commerce department decided something had to be done.

Shop owners were worried about shortages. A key supplier was struggling to meet the demand. Desperate customers were standing in blocklong lines. So, two weeks ago, Matías Tombolini, the country’s commerce secretary, and a group of other government officials gathered interested parties around a large conference table in a downtown office building for a seemingly solemn discussion to “seek out possible solutions.”

Argentina was facing a crisis: It did not have enough World Cup stickers to go around.

Every four years, soccer fans around the globe fall hard for the World Cup and for the palm-size collectible stickers known here as figuritas.

This year, however, the beloved pastime of filling the trademark Panini World Cup album has exploded like never before in Argentina. A confluence of supply-and-demand issues — but also a domestic inflation crisis and a surge of expectations that Argentina’s team could contend for the trophy later this year — has made World Cup figuritas more coveted than ever before, and exceedingly difficult to find.

ImageA child placing an Argentina sticker in his album at a square in Buenos Aires.
Credit...Natacha Pisarenko/Associated Press

Corner stores, where the stickers typically have been sold, saw their supply plummet this year, leading parents and their children on feverish hunts for sticker dealers as resale prices shot through the roof. Stickers now routinely sell for at least twice the suggested retail price of 150 pesos ($1) a pack, and counterfeits have infiltrated the market.

Things got so bad that even the national government, which is battling sky-high inflation and an increasingly discontent society, found the time to intervene — only to retreat when its effort was mocked as a waste of government resources.

Tombolini, the commerce secretary, did not respond to repeated requests for comment, and his meeting did not solve the problem.

Image
Credit...Tomas Cuesta/Getty Images
Image
Credit...Tomas Cuesta/Getty Images

On a recent Tuesday in the Buenos Aires neighborhood of Villa Urquiza, the buyers included teenagers on bikes, grandmothers searching on behalf of their grandchildren, fathers with their sons and a mother with a chatty dachshund. A curly-haired boy bounced into a corner store with the question that seemed to be on everyone’s lips these days.

“Do you have figuritas?” he asked breathlessly.

“Yes,” responded the store owner, Ernesto Acuña. “Five packs for 900 pesos. But you have to go stand in line.”

Acuña said that he had his response to the frenzy down to a science. On the days he can get his hands on packs of figuritas, he offers them for sale at 6 p.m. sharp. But before handing over the first pack, he surveys the line that forms down the block and rations out the quantity that each customer can take home. On some days, the limit is only two packs per person. Then Acuña stands at the window, as figurita fanatics trickle in with money in hand and eyes wide at a prize that is, in many places in Argentina this year, agonizingly and frustratingly out of reach.

Image
Credit...Luis Robayo/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

“The World Cup is a cultural thing. It gets crazy for everyone,” said Marcela Trotti, who accompanied her 11-year-old son, Franco, to buy figuritas for his friends and a cousin.

The increased demand could be tied to expectations — Argentines are feeling optimistic about their chances in Qatar after last year’s victory in the Copa América, South America’s regional championship — and because this year’s tournament will be the last World Cup with the star Lionel Messi on the roster.

And in a rough economic climate in which annual inflation is projected to reach 100 percent, the escapism of soccer glory has been a welcome distraction.

That has produced a white-hot economy in which the black-market value of packs of figuritas has soared. A single Messi card was retailing for 3,000 pesos ($20) at a recent figurita exchange market in Buenos Aires. A special Messi “gold legend” card was listed at 60,000 pesos ($403) on a popular Argentine online marketplace — a price nearly equivalent to the monthly salary of a minimum-wage worker. (The figuritas frenzy has even reached into Messi’s household; the player confirmed after a recent game in the United States that his children are collectors, too.)

Image
Credit...Natacha Pisarenko/Associated Press

“The Argentine responds to passions,” said Acuña, a vice president with the union representing kiosk-store owners. The group staged a protest at the Buenos Aires-area office of Panini last month, demanding more inventory.

Many have blamed the scarcity in kiosks on the fact that the product is now available in big grocery chains, gas stations, delivery apps and other outlets, but Panini Argentina contended that kiosks never had exclusive rights. The company sells to a slate of distributors, who in turn sell to smaller distributors who have traditionally supplied the kiosks, Acuña said.

But this year, kiosk owners said, they can barely get any supply or have had to pay higher prices for what is available. To make his point, Acuña scrolled through a series of WhatsApp groups he had with other kiosk owners, who responded with incensed emojis at offers from distributors selling figuritas for more than 200 pesos ($1.34) a pack.

Panini Argentina, the local subsidiary of the Italian firm that first sold World Cup stickers in 1970, said there was no shortage. “There’s a much higher demand,” the company said in a statement. In response, it has increased production, although Acuña said it had not really made a dent.

Image
Credit...Luis Robayo/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Image
Credit...Tomas Cuesta/Getty Images

“Every week that passes, the pack of figuritas costs more in the kiosk, on the street, on the internet,” he said.

Jorge Vargas, the owner of a figurita store in the center of Buenos Aires, said it was not that you couldn’t find figuritas. “It’s that they’re hard to find at 150 pesos,” he said.

Vargas has been able to secure a good rate from a reliable distributor, allowing him to stick to the suggested price, but he said other distributors were choosing to sell directly to the consumer, often online at an inflated price.

His own customers buy in bulk, he said, and then turn around and sell them in parks at a premium. Some clients became aggressive one day when he ran out of figuritas, so now he has the police come around to keep an eye on things.

Image
Credit...Agustin Marcarian/Reuters

For collectors, a completed sticker album is viewed as an investment that could increase in value, much like the ones from Argentina’s last victorious World Cup run led by Diego Maradona in Mexico in 1986. But more than money, collecting figuritas is about memory, fans and kiosk owners said. “It’s a memento,” Vargas said, “so that they can look back and say, I was there in that era.”

Figuritas are dipped in nostalgia. In Buenos Aires’s Parque Rivadavia, a hub for sticker trading, there were more adults than children one recent Sunday. Huddled in groups, they pored over lists they had printed that made it easier to determine the stickers they were missing.

Collectors called out the names of countries and jersey numbers. “Uruguay 18. Portugal 11. Switzerland 2. Serbia 8. Do you have those to trade?” a young man asked Agustín Corredoira, who shook his head. The 18-year-old Corredoira was there with his mother, Maria Laura, and his sister, Carolina; they said they walked more than two hours to a kiosk to buy 20 packs.

Image
Credit...Natacha Pisarenko/Associated Press

Matías Mannara, 19, was able to find his figuritas in a kiosk close to his night school. He paid 300 pesos ($2) a pack. “That hurt,” he admitted.

Nearby, Diego Radio grumbled at the “mafia” that had driven up the price of figuritas. But it has already been a lucky World Cup season for him. Four Messi stickers appeared in packs he and his 8-year-old son bought. One is in their album. Another was traded for a sticker featuring Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo. The other two have been stored away for safekeeping.

“He doesn’t want to let him go,” Radio said, smiling at his son.