Sunday, August 3, 2014

Guest Blogger: Josh and Stickers For Jesus

Until this summer, I had never collected stickers or had any interest whatsoever in soccer. But today I am the proud owner of a completed Panini World Cup sticker album—all 643 slots covered with the right stickers, most of them featuring soccer players I hadn't even heard of 6 weeks ago. How did this transformation happen?

First of all, I taught in May at Purdue a class in Sports Communication (with several international students), so I developed a heightened awareness of the sporting world beyond my usual focus on major league baseball and college basketball. Knowing that I was going to be living in Brazil during the World Cup (hosted this year by Brazil, in case you just emerged from a coma or aren't aware of the world beyond American borders), a Wall Street Journal article about sticker collecting and the World Cup caught my eye.

My initial interest was for my class—this seemed like an interesting example of the commodification of sport. In the same way that Americans buy sports memorabilia or wear jerseys from their favorite teams or collect baseball cards, this seemed like a more global version of the same phenomenon. 

According to the article, every four years, when the World Cup determines the best national soccer team in the world, Panini (an Italian company) publishes an album that includes sponsor stickers, FIFA-related stickers, and most importantly, the pictures of every player on all 32 teams competing in the World Cup. Collectors apparently range from schoolchildren to middle-aged men to entire families, all determined to cover as many slots in their albums as possible. The article described public spaces where people met to trade stickers to try to finish their books. It said that even though this was more of a global phenomenon, the books and stickers were actually available in America!

I went to Wal-Mart. I bought an empty album ($1.98) and five packs of stickers ($1/pack, 7 stickers in a pack). "Just a sample," I thought. "I'll use it for my class," I thought.

And I did. The reaction was startling--no one in the class had ever seen the book before, but everyone wanted to open the sticker packs and stick them in it!

Before I left the U.S., I bought one more batch of five sticker packs. "I don't have a problem," I told myself. "I can quit any time," I told myself. "This is just a little curiosity for Brazil. Maybe it will give me some good conversation topics with my readers--'stickers for Jesus!'"

Our Let's Start Talking mission project offers English conversation practice using stories from Luke as the basis for discussions. But the first part of each session is usually composed of small talk, and I thought this book might be a great conversation starter. I trotted out my new book and was a little disappointed when the first couple of people I showed didn't seem to recognize it or know anything about it. All that changed, however, when one of Gina's readers noticed what I was carrying. He even pulled up an app on his phone that kept track of which stickers he still needed!

Thus began my sticker-collecting odyssey. They're actually called "figurinhas" in Portuguese, and in Brazil they're a big deal. It turned out that several of our readers, their friends, and in one case a reader's husband collected the figurinhas and wanted to help me with my budding collection.  

First, one of Gina's readers told me a cheaper place and way to buy them--in a bulk pack that included 72 stickers for the equivalent of U.S. $6. That meant in Brazil I could buy stickers at 12 for a dollar instead of just the 7 I got for a dollar in the U.S. Bargain central! A couple of readers brought me their friends' duplicates to see if I could use any of them, and of course I could. The crowning piece of intelligence, however, was that there were informal trading posts, just like the ones I had read about in the article, in different spots around the city of Natal.

My first trading foray was at one of these outposts, on a rainy Saturday morning. With virtually no Portuguese and only a vague idea of how things worked, I took my small stack of duplicates and a list of some of the stickers I really wanted (primarily the shiny ones and those from the Brazilian, American, German, and Argentine teams). When I arrived, I found that I had made some good guesses about how things worked--I correctly had my duplicates in numeric order, making them easier for others to scan against their lists of missing stickers, and I also had a good list of the stickers I needed myself. At this point, my list of missing stickers was VERY partial--I hadn't allowed myself to even think about FINISHING the book at this point--I was just looking to have a decent collection. I probably had about 150 different stickers in the book, I had bought a few scattered sticker packs and 2 of the bulk packs, and that was all I intended to spend (at least, that's what I told myself).

My big discovery at that first trading post was that "trading" isn't always possible--in my case, for instance, I needed a lot more stickers than other people did. The market accommodated this by trading when possible and simply selling when not possible. Each sticker was priced at 20 centavos (about 10 U.S. cents). A few people paid me for some of mine, and I paid a few people for some of theirs (learning that I needed to carry more small change), and after an hour, I had been bitten by the bug.

I made a complete list of the stickers I was missing (a very long list in the beginning).

I talked about the collection with my readers.
Readers brought me stickers (!).
I started making pilgrimages in the evenings to another trading post at the mall.
And I went back to buy more bulk packs.

I continued to learn throughout this sticker odyssey:  for one thing, the Brazilian book isn't exactly the same as the American book. Different sponsors produced slightly different stickers for the beginning and end of the books, so I had to figure out which Brazilian stickers fit my American slots in a couple of cases. Another difference is that the blanks in the American book had both the number of each sticker AND the name of the corresponding player--the Brazilian book had only the numbers, no names. And while I was learning some names of national soccer stars (and also their professional teams, helpfully included on the figurinhas), I was mostly focused on the numbers I needed (helpfully marked on the paper backing of each sticker). So when trading, I would shuffle through others' duplicate decks facedown, simply comparing the numbers on the sticker backing to the numbers on my list.

When my number of needed stickers dipped below 100, I began to believe that I might actually complete the book. One of our readers asked me for my "missing list" and somehow found a handful of the stickers on the list. A couple more trading forays to the mall one weekend brought my number down to only 61 missing stickers--I was 90% finished!

That's when the husband of one of Gina's readers came through for me. A former professional soccer player himself, he had collected the entire set of stickers every World Cup for as long as he could remember--since childhood. Earlier in the project, he had shown me his completed book (I have to admit I was a little in awe) and I had shown him my very incomplete book--he wasn't very impressed at the time. But when I saw him again two weeks later, and my book was nearing completion, he offered to take me to a place near one of the trading points, a place where he suggested somebody might have ALL the stickers I needed. He drove me there, I traded for a few that whittled my number down a bit further, and then he introduced me to a mysterious character (at least to me) who had a huge box full of stickers--the price was a slightly marked-up 30 centavos per sticker, but I jumped at the chance to fill some of my remaining empty spots.  He didn't have ALL the stickers I needed, but by the time we left The Man With the Stickers, I needed only 31, which The Man asked me to write down for him.

Three days later, for less than $5, my figurinhas patron from the weekend sent me an envelope on which I had written my missing numbers. I don't know how The Man did it, but he had located and enclosed every single missing sticker. I'm a little embarrassed to tell you the joy it gave me to go to the kitchen table, sort the stickers into number order, and then methodically put one in each missing spot left in my book. My son and daughter were there with me, peeling and locating the next spots--we'd scan a page, say England's, and say, "Finished!" Then on to Argentina: "Finished!" The elusive Swiss and American pages:  "Finished!" And finally the last team in the book--South Korea. All 643 spots filled.

Don't ask me how much I invested in this little venture--I honestly don't know. At the height of my trading days, I would go to the trading spots with a pocket full of small bills and change and come home with about the same amount I started with (though some of it had changed several hands through trading). I bought and sold stickers from children, adults my age, and even little old ladies. All I know for certain is that the initial album price of $1.98 turned out to be no bargain--it was the gateway drug into the sketchy underworld of Brazilian figurinhas trading, and lots of dollars (and Brazilian reais) followed that tiny initial purchase. But I have a cool souvenir of the summer I spent in Brazil during the World Cup, and I have an excellent visual aid for the next time I teach the commodification of sport in my Sports Communication class.

I don't think anyone changed their beliefs about Jesus because of my little habit, but I will say that it led to some involved and animated conversations with readers and their friends and family members. The missionary admitted to being a little bit jealous of the way the stickers led me to interactions with people, and I was more engaged with the local culture than I would have ever thought possible. "Stickers for Jesus," in the end, might be an overstatement, but I must confess that my brief but frenzied foray into the world of World Cup stickers was an almost religious experience:  I recognized something missing in my life, I enlisted the help of friends and loved ones to help me find the missing pieces, and I was able to rejoice with all of them when I finally found what had been missing. It even took what seemed like some mysticism along the way (help from The Man With the Stickers) to finish my quest.

That's all well and good, but of course the main reason I did it was that it was fun. The general excitement in Brazil surrounding the World Cup, the collector gene that I think I inherited, and the ability to interact with Brazilians young and old, most of whom spoke no English, all made completing the book a way for me to feel like a winner at World Cup time, even if I wasn't German. 

No comments:

Post a Comment