The chronicles of the FIFA World Cup trophy

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On July 13th, either Germany or Argentina will ascend the awards podium to claim the coveted prize of the FIFA World Cup: its trophy.

With virtually every matter surrounding the beleaguered organization conducted under distress, the hardware itself is also not without controversy – its history filled with intriguing mystique.

The three-and-out rule

Throughout the World Cup’s 84-year history, only two original trophies have been produced. The first edition, the “Jules Rimet Trophy,” was posthumously so named after the French FIFA president most instrumental in instituting the World Cup. The current edition, unironically entitled “FIFA World Cup Trophy,” replaced its precursor in 1974 due to a romantic FIFA regulation since rescinded.

Perhaps to bolster the prestige of champions of consistency, FIFA initially decreed it would retire the trophy to the victor of three cumulative World Cups. With the triumph at the 1970 World Cup, having bagged the 1958 and 1962 Cups, Brazil was bequeathed the Jules Rimet. Since then, four nations were vying for a third victory going into the 2014 World Cup: Italy (1982, 2006), Brazil (1994, 2002), Germany (1974, 1990) and Argentina (1978, 1986). Remarkably, three of these nations were semifinalists in Brazil and filled both final slots – the winner poised to keep the tournament’s namesake.

Regardless of the result, however, neither Germany nor Argentina will own the trophy which will perpetually remain in FIFA’s possession. The permanency of its regulations notoriously delicate, the organization’s distrust of the winners’ ability to secure the keepsake may be justified.

A work of art

The uniqueness of the FIFA World Cup trophy is in its universal recognition as an esteemed work of art. Silvio Gazzaniga’s creation has become widely admired in that it distinctively bridges the gap between lovers of sculpture and football. While art aficionados appreciate the spiraling shape with harmony and dynamism, footballers identify with the human shapes heaving a sphere as a metaphor for their global conquest. Although it’s been controversially asserted that the trophy is hollow lest it should weigh 70-80 kilos, the designer maintains that, even at six kilos, the trophy is solid 18-carat gold.

Monetary value aside, it remains one of the most known and desired artifacts in the world. So was the Jules Rimet. Engineered from a blue precious stone depicting a winged Nike, the inaugural trophy was never too closely guarded but always elusive – its current whereabouts unknown.

The European travails of the Jules Rimet

Following Italy’s win of the third World Cup in 1938, the tournament went on a 12-year hiatus due to the situation on the European continent. In the meantime, the Italian federation stored the trophy in a Roman bank. Concerned with pervasive Nazi looting, FIFA’s Italian vice president Ottorino Barassi used his access to surreptitiously extract the trophy from the vault. It would spend the war years in a shoe box beneath the official’s bed.

Brazil held the Jules Rimet by virtue of their World Cup victory in 1962. In January of 1966, Brazil shipped it to England, the site of that year’s World Cup, in anticipation of the July tournament. Typically locked and out of sight, the English Football Association, or the FA, would acquiesce to publicity requests to showcase the trophy on the condition that it would be guarded round-the-clock. Stanley Gibbons Group, a company traded on the London Stock Exchange to this day, received permission to display the trophy amongst its £3 million stamps exhibition aptly named “Sport with Stamps.”

Although at least two guards were constantly at the trophy’s side in Westminster Central Hall, it was summarily swiped in broad daylight on a Sunday when the exhibition was closed for church services. The stamps, easier to access and worth 100 times more than the trophy was insured for, were left untouched. Neither the guards nor the maintenance men witnessed the effort. The very next day, the head of the FA received a call demanding a ransom. The ensuing police pursuit, although successfully nabbing the caller, failed to produce the trophy as the convicted petty thief claimed he was hired as a middleman.

The world was outraged, none more so than the Brazilians. Having won two consecutive World Cups, the Seleção were primed to bring the Jules Rimet home for good. The theft was a sacrilege. Abrain Tebel of the Brazilian Sports Confederation stated that no such theft would ever occur in Brazil, where even “thieves loved football.”

Six days later, David Corbett’s dog Pickles became a national celebrity by sniffing out a package on a side of the road in southeast London that contained an unharmed trophy which was made available in time for the World Cup. Brazil’s hope for a three-peat was thwarted by the English side that won its sole World Cup title, keeping the trophy in England for another four years. Corbett received a £6 reward while Pickles appeared on television and in movies. No one was ever caught or convicted for the theft.

Disappearance in Brazil

Brazil would not be denied, however. After its third title won at the very next World Cup in Mexico, the Seleção were permanently awarded with Jules Rimet Trophy. Intending to keep the trophy safe, unlike those Brits, the Brazilian Football Confederation displayed it inside a bullet-proof casing inside its Rio de Janeiro headquarters. It would be secure for no more than 13 years.

In 1983, Brazil’s schadenfreude was not left unpunished. In his book “Futebol: The Brazilian Way of Life,” Alex Bellos describes how after having tied a night guard, two men pried opened the cabinet holding the trophy with a crowbar. It apparently did not occur to the thieves to shoot their way through the glass.

The country fell into a depressive state that caused a brutal fallout. Pelé blamed Brazil’s widespread poverty for the ‘desperate’ state of the perpetrators. Gossip and hysteria ran plentiful. The most prevalent rumor had the thieves melt down the trophy and sell it for scraps. Nevermind that the trophy never contained gold. Various suspects were convicted in absentia. One such rumored suspect was found shot dead in 1989. An Argentine gold dealer was convicted without any evidence of having melted any trophy materials. Yet, no trophy was forthcoming – not then, not ever. In an attempt to restore national pride, Brazil commissioned a replica trophy to be created in 1984.

FIFA cleans up

England’s FA had the same idea in 1966. Even after Pickles’s recovery, the FA commissioned jeweler George Bird to produce a gilded bronze replica trophy with the exact specifications of the Jules Rimet. Curiously, the replica remained in Bird’s possession until his passing in 1995. At the estate auction, an anonymous buyer took home the trophy with the winning bid of £254,500. The bidder? Fédération Internationale de Football Association. According to sports writer Simon Kuper, it was under the impression that it was buying the original.

FIFA has been trying to clean up the trophy mess ever since. No country would be entrusted with the possession of the new trophy.

Germany or Argentina will be the eleventh winner whose name will be engraved on the bottom side of the trophy. The underside will then have room for only four more winners, the last of which will be crowned in 2030, the 100th anniversary of the World Cup. That winner, just like the winner on Sunday, will receive a replica gold-plated FIFA World Cup trophy in lieu of the original.

Happy 60th birthday Dad!

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