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Young Fans Trade Digital Stamps in Virtual Albums

BERLIN (AP) - Everything seems to have gone digital, even trading stamps at the World Cup.

What was once a children's hobby of collecting, trading and pasting actual stamps in a book can now be done electronically in a computer - only this is free, without the glue, and it's brought to you by the same company best known for the pastime.

Coca-Cola's World Cup Web site features a virtual Panini sticker album, where registrants can earn stamps with players' pictures, stats and biographical detail, trade them, and watch their collection grow.

"We have a good mixture of youth experiencing (Panini sticker albums) for the first or second time," said Coke's global marketing spokesman Philipp Bodentza. "But there's definitely revival players, as well. I'm 38, and I remember my Panini collection. It's fun to go watch and see all pictures from the previous tournaments, as well."

The album is a collaboration of Coke, an official World Cup sponsor; Panini, the Modena, Italy-headquartered company that has been producing soccer sticker albums since 1961 and World Cup versions since 1970; and White Plains, N.Y.-based Tokenzone, Inc., which developed the software to allow fans to collect and trade the stamps in 11 languages.

"One of the nice things, with 11 different languages, is it interfaces with the different languages, so you can trade with someone, say, in Japan," Tokenzone president Isaac Arias said.

After registering, visitors to the site earn stamps by various methods. They get three stamps every four hours, provided they log in again; get stamps for playing video games on the site, both against the computer and against other players; for watching TV commercials for Coke's "Rivalidades" World Cup ad campaign; downloading screen savers and wallpaper; answering trivia questions; inviting others to join; and predicting the winners of matches.

Just like in packets bought in stores, some players' stickers are rarer than others, and collectors get duplicates. These can be exchanged in the trading room with other collectors from around the world.

There are about 600 players in the virtual album, but collectors need only accumulate 100 designated players to automatically get the whole set. One-to-five players per team are designated, and once the handful of players per team are collected, the remainder of the entire team is downloaded.

Italy's Gianluigi Buffon and Alessandro Nesta, and France's Zinedine Zidane and Fabien Barthez are among the designated players.

There's bad news for fans of the U.S. team, which is the only one of the 32 World Cup sides not included; Panini's couldn't secure the rights to American players.

The site, which has been running since mid-May, will remain available through September, Bodentza said, and once the entire album is complete, it can be downloaded to a computer hard drive for later viewing.

The digital album isn't meant to replace the paper one. Antonio Allegra, Panini's director of new media, says the company has sold about 3 billion, a "huge increase" from 2002.

"The two are complementary," Allegra said. "The digital one will lead to the physical one. The environment creates buyers."

(Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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