In Brazil, mania for a childhood pastime

SAO PAULO, Brazil — If she were an American 15-year-old, Gabrielly Sartori would almost certainly not be collecting baseball cards. But the soft-spoken, bespectacled Brazilian teenager has spent the last few weeks madly collecting their distant cousin, World Cup cards.

The cards — which are really stickers — feature players, teams, coaches and even the South African stadiums that in mid-June will become the sporting focus of Planet Earth.

11-year-old Guilherme Azevedo, who already completed his World Cup album, helps friend Rafael Di Fransceco. (Seth Kugel/GlobalPost)

The same World Cup stickers are for sale around the world, but since they became available in Brazil on April 11, this soccer-crazed country has been ravenously buying them up, at 75 Brazilian cents (about 40 U.S. cents) per five-pack. And the collectors, whose goal is to fill the official World Cup album that has spaces for all 640 stickers, are not just young boys.

Gabrielly’s mother Marina, a pediatrician, said that at the hospital where she works, even the doctors spend their coffee and lunch breaks sorting through colleagues’ doubles and making trades. (Nurses, she did mention, were not as obsessed.) She recently took Gabrielly to a newsstand near Sao Paulo’s Pacaembu soccer stadium that had organized a sticker-trading event with free popcorn, one of many such exchange points — real and virtual — in the country.

Soccer fans gathered outside the Pacaembu newsstand in Sao Paulo to trade “figurinhas,” stickers of World Cup players, teams, coaches and stadiums. (Seth Kugel/GlobalPost)

Cristina Feres, co-owner of Banca Pacaembu, which sponsored the event, said the stand had been selling between 6,000 and 7,000 five-packs a day. Some newsstands can’t keep them in stock, posting notices when new shipments come in. The sticker craze has even led some to crime: in late April, three people were arrested for allegedly stealing 135,000 "figurinhas" from a distribution center. (Along with the recovered stickers, police found another addictive substance: cocaine.)

Gabrielly came to the newsstand needing just 21 more stickers to complete the 640-card collection, and with a large stack of doubles to trade. She managed to get her hands on the first 20 relatively easily, but number 507, a North Korean player named Ri Myong Guk, was proving elusive.

The elusive Ri Myong-Guk himself. (Seth Kugel/GlobalPost)

Meanwhile, a married couple, Alexandre Oliveira, 39, and Karolina Gutiez, 28, arrived at the gathering spot missing about 50 stickers.

“During the last World Cup,” said Gutiez, “I didn’t really find out about them, and then afterward I was annoyed I hadn’t collected them.” This year, she has been trading with people at work in the corporate communications of a construction company. The couple has also traded them with kids in their building in the upscale Vila Olimpia neighborhood. Wherever they go, said Oliveira, even to friends’ birthday parties, “there’s always someone there trading.”

Gutiez and Oliveira sift through another woman’s stack of sticker doubles and see if any match their list. (Seth Kugel/GlobalPost)

Here’s how the system works: you buy the empty album for just over $2 (or get it free in the newspaper), and then start purchasing five-packs. The album fills quickly at first, with few repeats, but inevitably, piles of doubles grow. And by the time you have only 50 or 75 left, the average five-pack is all repeats.

Of course, young boys seem to make up at least a plurality of collectors. Guilherme Azevedo, 11, receives an allowance of 11 reais a week, which gets him 14 packs with 50 cents to spare. What’s the appeal? “For the memories,” he said. “It’s so that when I’m older, I can say to my children, ‘Son, here was one of my first World Cups.’”

A family flips through their album. (Seth Kugel/GlobalPost)

Guilherme’s maturity-beyond-his-years streak was just beginning. Upon finding out the reporter interviewing him was American, he sorted through his doubles and gave him a USA team shot and a sticker of U.S. star Landon Donovan.

Nearby, Flavio Sergio Gomes da Costa was sitting with his 9-year-old son Pedro Henrique. “I think it’s a great way to follow the Cup,” he said. “During my childhood, around the 1982 Cup, the stickers came in chewing gum. I collected them, but didn’t keep the albums. These days I really miss those albums.”

Flavio Sergio Gomes de Castro helps his son Pedro Henrique with his album. (Seth Kugel/GlobalPost)

Meanwhile, Gabrielly was continuing her search for number 507, moving patiently from group to group, targeting new arrivals. How was she feeling? “Anxious,” she said. “Moco,” she would ask, using a polite term of address for young men, “do you have 507?”

Everyone knew what it meant — that she was missing one last card — and tried to help.

Finally, she came to a young man named Kadu Vasconcelos, who was sporting a ponytail and the green jersey of Palmeiras, a Sao Paulo club, and sitting on the steps just outside the magazine stand. “Moco, do you have 507?”

He flipped through his pile, plucked it out and handed it to Gabrielly, who broke into a wide grin. She thanked him, and went to find her mom. The next step was to stick the last 21 stickers in the album, but what she would do with it afterward was unclear.

And bingo! Kadu Vasconcelos makes Gabrielly happy by giving her 507.

“I don’t know,” she shrugged. “Display it in my room?” Whatever she decides, it’s unlikely her happy encounter with Ri Myung Guk would make her a fan of the North Korean team: their first Cup game, on June 15, is against Brazil.