Mysteries of the Rimet Trophy

The World Cup has been the stuff of dreams for generations of footballers. But they are not the only ones who have their eyes on this illustrious symbol of national pride and sporting excellence, darker forces have yearned to possess it too. BT Sport 1, Sun, July 16th 19.30.

It is probably the most famous trophy in sport. The Jules Rimet trophy, the original World Cup, was not a large trophy but, much like an Oscar, it punched well above its weight. Made of gold-plated sterling silver on a white/yellow marble base which was later replaced with a larger one fashioned in lapis lazuli, it stood a mere 14 inches (35cm) in height and weighed just under eight a-and-a-half pounds. Designed by French sculptor Abel Lafleur, it depicted Nike, the Greek goddess of victory, holding aloft a decagonal cup. Not a whole lot to look at, perhaps, but it symbolised so much.

It is small wonder that the Jules Rimet trophy became the centre of so much mystery and intrigue over the years. After Uruguay won the inaugural competition in 1930, the 1934 and 1938 tournaments were won by Italy. Never one to miss an opportunity for self-promotion, Italy’s fascist dictator Benito Mussolini was quick to seize on these achievements and appropriate them to his own ends. Suddenly fascism became synonymous with sporting excellence and national pride – in Italian eyes at least. It was a potent symbol.



Nazis go a-hunting


This was not lost upon Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime who looked on with envy. When war broke out in 1939, the trophy was secretly stored in a Rome bank vault for safe keeping, but the Nazis were determined to track it down. What happened next is the stuff of matinee war films. The Nazis soon came looking, but Ottorino Barassi, the mild-mannered head of the Italian Football Federation who worked at the bank in question, was one step ahead of them and moved it from the vault at the last minute.

He took the trophy home and hid it in a shoe box underneath his bed. But it wasn’t long before the Nazis were knocking at his door, demanding to search his apartment. They forced their way in but were a little remiss in their efforts (just like the films!) to locate the trophy. They searched the bedroom and even looked under the bed, but ignored the rather innocuous-looking shoe box that they saw there. It was a close-run thing, but the Jules Rimet trophy was safe, for now at least!

Mystery deepens

There are several rumours and counter-rumours associated with the trophy after that. Ironically, the Germans, well, the West Germans anyway, finally did get their hands on it in 1954 when they defeated favourites Hungary 3-2 in the final in Berne. Some photojournalists claimed later that the trophy that West Germany won that day and the one they presented to FIFA before the start of the 1958 World Cup were significantly different. According to their photos, it was at least five centimetres taller and with a longer base. Was it the same trophy and why was no explanation forthcoming for any modification work?


Fast forward to 1966 as England prepared to host the tournament. The FA had commissioned a replica of the trophy for promotional purposes (more on that later!). Meanwhile, the supposed original was stolen while on public display in Westminster Central Hall four months before the official kick-off. It was broad daylight but no one saw a thing. A ransom note was sent to the FA demanding £15,000 in £5 and £1 notes for its safe return. A petty thief named Edward Betchley was apprehended and charged following a sting operation, but he claimed he was only the middle-man and had no idea where the trophy was. However, a few days later it was discovered in a hedge in a garden in Norwood, south London by a dog named Pickles who was out for a walk with his owner. To this day, nobody knows how it got there.

The owner received rewards totalling £6,000 and even attended the players’ celebration dinner following England’s victory, while Pickles himself became something of a minor celebrity, even appearing on television and in films. The world was appalled at the apparent lack of security, with a Brazilian official famously claiming that such a thing would never happen in his country because “even Brazilian thieves love football and would never commit this sacrilege”. Once again, more on that later!


Gone in 60 seconds

The story now moves to Brazil who took permanent possession of the trophy after winning the World Cup for a third time in 1970. It was held on permanent display on the third floor of the Brazilian Football Federation in Rio de Janeiro, but was stolen by a gang of masked thieves on December 19th 1983 who overpowered the security guards and quickly vanished into the night. A replica which was stored in a nearby safe was left untouched.

The theft triggered a desperate search for its recovery amid fears that the trophy would be melted down by one of the many covert foundries throughout the city. The head of the federation made an impassioned plea for its safe return, saying that “the spiritual value of the cup is far greater than its material worth” and that the thieves had “no feeling of patriotism”. The abiding feeling among Brazilians about the incident is one of shame even to this day.


The trophy was never recovered, but there was a final twist to the tale. This concerned the creation of the replica in England back in 1966. There were now two identical trophies. What if the replica had been stolen rather than the original? Apparently, the replica was so good that it was difficult to tell which was which. What if England had given the wrong one back in 1970?

The rumour mill began to build up such a head of steam that even FIFA got confused. When the trophy that had remained in England after the 1966 tournament was put up for auction in 1997 with a £30-50,000 guide price, they were interested. Was this the chance to recover the original Jules Rimet trophy at last? Following a tense bidding process, FIFA eventually paid £254,000 for it and immediately had it examined by a jeweller. It was the replica - England had given the real one back in 1970.

The mystery continues…...


Images: Getty

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