In three weeks, the 32-nation World Cup soccer tournament begins in South Africa and the ultimate prize for every team is to win the celebrated, 18-karat gold and malachite trophy.
The World Cup trophy is on the final leg of a carefully orchestrated and lucratively sponsored global tour. Nelson Mandela held the trophy recently and, according to news accounts, machine-gun-toting policemen, clad in bulletproof vests, will protect the Cup during its 30-day tour of South Africa.
Its final public appearance will be at the 90,000-seat Soccer City Stadium in Johannesburg for the June 11 opening match. After that, the trophy will be locked in a safe until the July 11 final.
Armed guards are there for effect as much as anything because FIFA, world soccer’s governing body, likes to give the impression that the Cup trophy is worth more than it really is. “This trophy is unique, it has no [specific] value,” Jerome Valcke, FIFA’s general secretary, said this month. “Some say that the value is the equivalent of the Mona Lisa, and I think that’s right.”
However, the repeated use of the word “real” in FIFA’s news releases is intended to undermine the widespread belief that the Cup trophy on tour is nothing more than a gold-plated replica, although FIFA acknowledges that replicas do exist.
Indeed, throughout the 80-year history of the World Cup, the trophy has been something of a sore point.
The original trophy managed to evade capture by Mussolini and his Nazi allies during World War II by being hidden under a bed in Italy, but the trophy later was stolen in England, was recovered by a dog, only to be stolen again in Brazil and perhaps melted down for its gold content.
This odd tale begins with French sculptor Abel Lafleur, who designed and made the original Cup trophy for FIFA in time for soccer’s first world championship, in Uruguay in 1930. (The trophy was named after Jules Rimet, a former FIFA president.)
Lafleur’s creation was a stunning 14-inch-tall gold statue of the winged Greek goddess Nike, holding aloft an octagonal cup, on a base of blue lapis lazuli. It made its way to Montevideo aboard an Italian passenger liner. The trophy was to be awarded every four years to the winning team, and to be retired if any country won the tournament three times.
Uruguay won that first tournament, and Italy followed with victories at home in 1934 and again in France in 1938. The outbreak of war in 1939 led to concern that the Nazis would try to get their hands on it. The problem was solved in bizarre fashion by Ottorino Barassi, an Italian vice president of FIFA, who took the Cup trophy from a Rome bank and hid it in a shoe box beneath his bed for the duration of the war.
Nothing could match that drama until 1966. The World Cup was set to be played in England that summer, and the trophy was put on display at a stamp exhibition in London in March. It was to have been kept under 24-hour guard, but a thief or thieves nevertheless managed to break into a security case and make off with it on only its second day on display.
The outcry was immediate. The hunt was on. A ransom message was received. A petty thief was arrested. But the Cup was nowhere to be found.
Until, that is, a black and white mongrel named Pickles entered the picture.
Off on his daily walk one week after the theft, Pickles spotted something suspicious, wrapped in a newspaper, beneath a hedge in the front garden of his Norwood home in south London. He dragged his owner, David Corbett, over to take a look.
“I thought it was a bomb,” Corbett recalled in 2006, the 40th anniversary of Pickles’ discovery. “There was a lot of IRA action at the time. Even when I started taking off the paper and saw it was a statue, nothing really stirred.”
Once Scotland Yard determined that the Cup trophy was authentic, news of its recovery was released. Pickles instantly became a hero, his photograph appearing in newspapers around the globe.
And so, on the afternoon of July 30, 1966, Queen Elizabeth II was able to hand the trophy to England’s captain, Bobby Moore, at Wembley Stadium after England had defeated Germany in the final.
But there was a twist in the tale.
After the theft and before the trophy’s recovery, England’s Football Assn. secretly ordered a replica to be made, not telling even FIFA of its plan. A jeweler, George Bird, made a gilded bronze copy of the original trophy.
So after England’s victory, police, acting under orders, grabbed the original trophy from the English locker room and replaced it with the replica, which for four years was paraded around the country as the real thing.
In 1970, the World Cup was played in Mexico and England had to return the trophy so that it could be awarded to the next winner, which turned out to be Brazil. As a three-time winner, Brazil was allowed to keep the trophy for good.
Flash-forward to December 1983, when thieves broke into the Rio de Janeiro headquarters of the Brazilian soccer federation and stole Lafleur’s original Cup. It has not been seen since and is believed to have been melted down.
But 14 years later, after Bird died, his family put up for auction through Sotheby’s what was called a “replica” World Cup trophy. FIFA paid $414,000 for the trophy, almost 10 times its reserve auction price.
Why? According to a Financial Times story in 2006, “even FIFA wasn’t sure whether the trophy at auction was indeed the real gold cup, or merely the bronze replica.”
That trophy, real or not, is now at the National Football Museum in Preston, England.
Now we shift to the “new” Cup trophy.
After the original was retired in 1970, FIFA commissioned a new trophy for the 1974 World Cup. This was designed by Italian Silvio Gazzaniga, and his gold trophy was also about 14 inches high and in the shape of a globe held in outstretched hands.
FIFA changed its rules so that the new Cup trophy could not be retired. Instead, every four years the new “original” Cup trophy goes to the winning nation. When that trophy is returned for the next tournament, a replica trophy is given to that country to keep.
However, this practice has also spawned its own mystery.
Since 1974, nine teams from five countries have won the Cup. Mandela was also awarded a replica Cup trophy. So, there would appear to be at least 10 official copies of the Gazzaniga-designed trophy.
So exactly how many Cup trophies are there? FIFA won’t say.