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World Cup stickers sweep soccer-agnostic Venezuela

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Photo - People exchange stickers of soccer players to complete their World Cup sticker albums at a meeting of collectors in Caracas, Venezuela, Saturday, June 21, 2014. Adults and children alike are spilling into plazas around the country to swap and buy business card-sized stickers with the faces of players and photos of Brazilian stadiums. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
People exchange stickers of soccer players to complete their World Cup sticker albums at a meeting of collectors in Caracas, Venezuela, Saturday, June 21, 2014. Adults and children alike are spilling into plazas around the country to swap and buy business card-sized stickers with the faces of players and photos of Brazilian stadiums. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
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CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuela is again sitting out the World Cup, but many people in this soccer-agnostic nation have been swept up in the race to complete their World Cup sticker albums.

Adults and children alike spill into plazas to swap and buy business card-sized stickers with the faces of players, images of Brazilian stadiums and glimmering renditions of each country's logo.

While soccer has long taken a backseat to baseball and even basketball in Venezuela, the ritual of collecting World Cup stickers has sparked a frenzy. Politicians, TV personalities and professional collectors can be found at ad-hoc trading centers searching for the 640 stickers that constitute a complete 2014 collection.

Aficionados buy slim, shiny packs of five stickers each, and then start swapping, sometimes hanging out for hours until they find the right soccer star smiling up at them. Traders say the hobby provides a connection to the tournament and is a distraction from Venezuela's troubles.

At a plaza in the upscale Los Palos Grandes neighborhood on Sunday, the crowd included children still in strollers, serious white-haired men and young adults clad in their favorite teams' jerseys. Traders clutched scribbled inventories and printed-out spreadsheets, asking anyone who lingered, "Are you selling?"

Viennelys Areala said the morning of trading helped take her mind off the ways in which her life has become more difficult in recent years in Venezuela, which has been struggling with high inflation and shortages of basic goods. The country has been shaken by anti-government protests during the past few months, and the plaza is still decorated with anti-administration signs and graffiti.

The sticker craze sweeps through the region every four years with the start of the World Cup. Latin America is the top market for official sticker distributor Panini, and sales are typically highest in Brazil.

Stickers are pricier in Venezuela than in other Latin American countries, and collectors say it can cost more than 12,000 bolivars to fill an album. That's about $2,000 at the official exchange rate, or $200 at the black market rate.

Preschool teacher Maria Carolina has started selling stickers as a second job, buying packs in bulk and setting up shop every weekend in the plaza. It keeps her from watching World Cup matches, but that's what Twitter updates are for, she said.

Panini, which is based in Italy, will sell desperate collectors a limited number of stickers to order. But buying missing stickers is more expensive than trading, and it's considered bad form.

Yet some fans feel they have little choice. The collecting deadline is looming with the end of the World Cup next month.

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Hannah Dreier on Twitter: https://twitter.com/hannahdreier

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