SAO PAULO (Reuters) - The World Cup is around the corner and millions of fans are putting down their iPads to collect and trade football stickers, a decades-old hobby that has defied the digital age.
A children's game played mostly by adults, FIFA's Brazil World Cup sticker album is a cult phenomenon and multimillion-dollar business for the Panini Group, an Italian company that has been printing the cards since Mexico hosted the Cup in 1970.
Fans around the world are buying envelopes, ripping them open and frantically trading cards featuring Lionel Messi, Neymar, Cristiano Ronaldo or Wayne Rooney.
Panini doesn't disclose sales projections, but executives say this year's World Cup in Brazil, a soccer-crazed nation of 200 million, will set records for the Modena-based company.
Brazil is Panini's biggest market and sticker mania there is finally getting fans excited about the World Cup. It will kick off on June 12 after a year of discontent over construction delays and the billions in taxpayer money being spent to host the event.
"It is all about football and the pleasure of swapping cards," said Alexandre Gabel, a 37-year-old advertising executive who took his sons to a sticker fair in Sao Paulo. "And you end up with a nice souvenir."
Panini's factory in an industrial suburb north of Sao Paulo is working around the clock, its noisy machines cutting, packing and spitting out over 8 million envelopes a day. Seventy percent of the 5-sticker envelopes will be sold in Brazil for 1 real (26p) each, with the rest shipped all over Latin America.
"The launch of the sticker album marks the real start of the World Cup," says José Eduardo Martins, Panini's chief executive in Brazil. "It is a fever."
The company expects to reach over 8 million fans in Brazil alone, where even President Dilma Rousseff confessed she is helping her grandson complete the 640-sticker album.
During the 2010 Cup in South Africa, Brazilian newsstands sold 220 million envelopes, often running out of stickers and helping Brazil surpass Germany as Panini's top market.
"This time we expect sales to be more than 50 percent higher," said Jose Antonio Mantovani, head of the newsstand owner's union in Sao Paulo.
Panini is so strongly identified with the World Cup that protesters recently burned sticker albums in the streets of Sao Paulo to express outrage at what they see as a waste of money.
The glossy cards became such a hot commodity that a delivery truck carrying 300,000 stickers was stolen in Rio de Janeiro, worrying fans over a possible shortage.
Martins is proud of Panini's accuracy in picking teams before coaches disclose their World Cup lineups, an art he said the company has perfected over decades.
More challenging this time, however, was to produce pictures of the 12 stadiums Brazil has either built or refurbished for the Cup, some of them still unfinished.
"In Curitiba, we had to use Photoshop to add the grass," Martins said.
(Editing by Todd Benson and Andrew Hay)