RIO DE JANEIRO
Neymar is the world's most expensive player, wanted by everyone and rarely available — not least on the Panini football stickers market.
For Brazilian enthusiasts racing to find the 682 stickers to complete Panini albums before the World Cup starts, their star striker is every bit as elusive as he is on the pitch.
"The hardest to get was Neymar. I did it yesterday, but he was selling for a lot," office administrator Raquel Senna, 31, said at one of Rio de Janeiro's impromptu Panini street exchanges.
She didn't have to pay the 222 million euros ($264 million) forked out by Paris Saint-Germain to lure Neymar from Barcelona last year.
But in Panini terms, it still hurt.
All the other individual stickers sell on the black market in Brazil for just under a real ($0.13), with the exception of a few superstars, like Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, who fetch two reais ($0.54).
Neymar? Typically a whopping five reais ($1.35).
So Senna, who went hunting for deals, actually did well.
"He was sold to me for three reais, but there are people selling for up to 20," she said.
In a humorous publicity stunt, the Italian Panini company sent Neymar's actress girlfriend Bruna Marquezine a load of free stickers — every single one of which turned out to be the megastar himself.
"I never thought I would say this but I'm ready to exchange my boyfriend. I'll trade him for anyone, please," Marquezine joked to Instagram followers.
PANINI STOCK MARKET
Senna was one of dozens of adults huddled along a cramped sidewalk in central Rio at lunch hour, each carrying the wad of cards they hoped to swap and a list of reference numbers for the cards they needed to find.
The intense hubbub had all the atmosphere of a stock market, just with football fans as brokers.
Panini album collecting is a worldwide craze ahead of big events like the World Cup, but Brazilians buy more than twice as many stickers as the next biggest consumers, the Germans, Folha de S.Paulo newspaper reported in March.
"Brazil is a phenomenon and keeps growing," Panini Brazil president Jose Eduardo Martins told Folha.
For sure, the stickers are cheaper here.
A study by Banco Santander determined that an official packet of five stickers costs $0.59 in Brazil, compared to $1.80 in Switzerland, the most expensive country.
Brazilians, however, are suffering the effects of a severe economic slowdown, so every penny counts.
Filling an album by buying the stickers randomly and waiting until you find each player would mean buying 967 packets, and racking up a mountain of duplicates, according to mathematics professor Paul Harper, at Cardiff University.
In Brazil, that would mean spending $570.
Take the ultimate shortcut and simply buy the whole collection of pre-sorted stickers and you'd pay only around 400 reais ($108), salesmen at the Rio market said.
Best of all — if you have time — is the traditional route of buying randomly, then swapping duplicates until you have what you need.
Artur Fonseca, 46, whose Brazilian navy uniform stood out in the crowd of collectors, still needed about 80 players but said persistence pays.
"I come to spend whatever time I can during lunch breaks and exchange 20 or 30 stickers. It goes quickly," he said.
SIMPLE PLEASURES OF LIFE
Panini collecting is a serious business.
In April, two Rio state legislative aides caught flack when they were photographed trading stickers in the middle of a speech.
There was an even bigger outcry in Mexico when the leftist frontrunner in presidential elections admitted he'd spent a day filling a Panini album with his son instead of prepping a debate.
But Fonseca, also collecting for his son, says there is something reassuring about the tradition.
"The generations pass, but it goes on," he said.
Senna, who was collecting along with her husband, said the challenge of finding people to exchange with is the best part.
"You make contact with all those people," she said. "I think it's funny that this album can be so successful in such a technological era."