About two weeks ago, Argentina’s Trade Minister Matias Tombolini was forced to chair a meeting. It should take place between executives and local shopkeepers. “The meeting has started to assess the situation of the WM figuritas market,” Tombolini tweeted, offering to “make our legal and technical teams available to collaborate in finding possible solutions.”
The lack? Panini sports cards. The customer? An ever-increasing number of Argentinian parents crowd into candy stores (the only places in Argentina authorized to sell these cards) hoping to buy the cards wholesale. And why would they want to buy these cards? Simply put, every four years completing the Panini World Cup sticker album is a national obsession, and the demand has been fueled by two main factors – an Argentinian team that struck a chord in the hearts of its people, and the gem of this team saying that this will be his last World Cup.
Panini Cards, a division of an Italian company that makes trading cards for all sports and has usually always had appeal in the United States. America loves its collectibles and the resale market on the cards is second only to the sneaker resale market in this area. But Argentina also has a rich history of collecting panini cards. Ahead of the 2018 World Cup, gunmen managed to steal $360,000 worth of Panini cards in the Argentine city of Munro. Now the demand for the tickets was fueled by the always high hopes for a successful World Cup. At the age of 35, Lionel Messi and the Argentine soccer team are almost single-handedly pushing a collector’s market to buy up trading cards in an economy that’s headed for 100 percent inflation this year.
A hopeful country
It should be the 2018 World Cup in Russia. After Mario Goetze caused heartache in extra time at the Maracana in 2014, Russia would be Argentina’s salvation. It was to be the redemption of a production line that had spawned five U-20 World Cups in 1995 and 2007. But above all, it should be the salvation of Lionel Messi and his record in international events.
But the World Cup came and went. Happened in Croatia. And Argentina’s finest football product went through what Michael Jordan may have gone through in the late ’80s. Being the best player in the world in a team sport doesn’t guarantee titles.
But then, in 2021, something wonderful happened. Argentina’s senior team actually won a tournament. In the midst of the pandemic, associations banded together to host the Copa America. It was a tournament run under the guise of reorganizing the CONMEBOL football calendar but was in reality designed to raise funds for these associations struggling with the effects of Covid.
In the final, Messi’s Argentina defeated Brazil 1-0. A 27-year title drought came to an end. And the greatest talent Argentina had ever produced finally had national silverware on its hands.
Is it fair to have high hopes for Argentina’s chances in Qatar? Might not. The Nations League has ensured that this World Cup cycle means that non-European teams rarely get a chance to play against top European sides. International friendlies are a way to test your mettle and see where you stand.
Argentina is currently unbeaten in 34 games. But take a closer look and the truth is quite different. In the past three years, Argentina have met European opponents only twice – a 5-0 win over Estonia and a 3-0 victory over Italy in the Copa Finalissima at Wembley Stadium.
In addition to the lack of variety in the opponents and the lack of quality, there are also problems in the squad. Angel di Maria does not get regular playing time at Juventus. Both right-back Gonzalo Montiel and left-back Marcos Acuna do not feature regularly at their clubs. Thankfully Gonzalo Higuain has stepped down and there will be no more repeats of missed chances, as was the case in the 2014 World Cup final or the 2015 and 2016 Copa America finals, both against Chile.
Although there are many reasons not to consider Argentina as title favorites, this edition of the World Cup could be a lot more open than previously thought.
Looking at the form of the participating teams, one can’t help but think that the scheduling of the tournament could possibly coincide with a dip in the form of the top teams. Both England and France, with strong squads, have been plagued by a string of draws, losses and unanswered questions lately. With just a few weeks left until football’s biggest tournament, the gap between the top teams is much smaller than previously thought. Messi, no longer burdened with the desire for an international trophy, could very well make the difference between small lines at the World Cup. If his panini card currently has value with the Argentines, imagine what the queues outside Buenos Aires candy stores would be like if the trading card featuring Messi with the World Cup trophy were released.