Outside the main gates of Maracanã Stadium in Rio de Janeiro, there is a statue of the captain of Brazil's first World Cup-winning football team, Hilderaldo Luiz Bellini. Cast in bronze, the defender stands atop a vast sphere, with a ball tucked under his left hand and a trophy held aloft in his right. The trophy is small, almost dainty; its most eye-catching feature is a set of wings springing from a woman's back.
It's all Art Deco details and a pre-war aesthetics, and so nothing like the chunky, abstract FIFA World Cup trophy modern football fans have grown to know and covet. The prize in Bellini's hand is the Jules Rimet trophy, the original World Cup championship award and arguably the most mysterious and valuable piece of sports memorabilia on the planet. That is, if it still exists.
Just this past June, the Swiss luxury watchmaker Hublot paid a reported £395,000 (around US$525,000) at auction for a replica of the Jules Rimet trophy. You read that right: Hublot laid down more than half a million bucks for a fake, and did so knowing that the item was bogus. Even more surprising, this isn't the first time the imitation fetched a handsome sum at auction. In 1997, FIFA paid £254,500 at Sotheby's—though in that case, FIFA officials had convinced themselves the item was genuine. To understand how soccer's global governing body could descend into absolute confusion about the greatest symbol of their sport—and to understand why, even then, they agreed to obtain it at any cost—we have to go back 86 years, to the first World Cup.
In 1930, Jules Rimet was the president of FIFA—the organization's third—and about to realize his dream of a World Cup tournament. In preparation, he approached the Parisian sculptor Abel Lafleur to produce a trophy. LaFleur looked to the Greek goddess of victory, Nike, for his inspiration, and the result was a 14-inch, 8.4-pound trophy made of sterling silver and plated with 14-karat gold. The story might be apocryphal, but it's said that Rimet carried the statuette to the inaugural tournament in his suitcase. It would be the last time the trophy was handled so casually.
Today, the World Cup is one of the most important sporting events in the world. Due in part to its inherent minimalism—all you need is a ball—soccer engages players from around the world and lends itself to the development of signature techniques and regional styles; the sport is built for expressiveness, but also for tribalism. When Jules Rimet personally handed over his trophy to the first champion team, Uruguay, it was a performance in service of nationalism. By uniting a country's citizens and igniting national pride, victory on the pitch became a symbol of real-life international dominance. Rimet's rules only upped the ante: possession of the trophy would pass from team to team until a nation earned permanent stewardship by winning three tournaments.
As the decade continued, there emerged a new global leader in strident nationalism and empire-building aspirations, the Third Reich. Given the sport's propaganda value, it made sense that Hitler got into soccer; reportedly, Goebbels was already a huge fan. At the 1938 World Cup, however, Germany was eliminated in the first round, even after a loophole allowed it to field experienced players from the recently annexed Austria. Mussolini's Italy wound up winning the tournament.
When war broke out the following year, Nazi looting became a secondary cultural danger, and the World Cup trophy was rumored to be on the Reich's wish list. Correctly sensing the danger, Italian FA official Ottorino Barassi took the trophy home and hid it in a shoebox under his bed. When Nazi soldiers broke into his apartment, they failed to discover it.
During World War II, the World Cup tournament, like everything else, was put on hold. Play resumed in 1950, and so did the trophy's travels.
If everything up to this point was shades of The Maltese Falcon, what came next, in 1966, was strictly Monty Python. England was the World Cup host that year, and so the Rimet trophy was secured at the Football Association headquarters. Before the tournament began, the trophy was released for display at a stamp exhibition at Westminster Central Hall. It was held in a case and guarded by two police officers—for precisely one day. Within 24 hours, the Rimet was gone.
The head of the FA later received a parcel at his house containing the trophy's cup lining and a ransom note demanding £15,000. He contacted the police, who cooked up a decoy payoff scheme. The drop did not go well. Before the transaction could be completed, the contact made the police van and took off on foot. He was caught and arrested, but the trophy was not recovered. A week after the theft, a dog named Pickles, out for a walk with his human in London, sniffed out an abandoned package under a bush. The Rimet was inside. Pickles enjoyed the perks of being a famous hero dog until his untimely death by choking the following year. His collar is on display at the National Football Museum in Manchester, England.
Meanwhile, the FA had jeweler George Bird produce an exact replica in case the Rimet was not recovered. With the genuine trophy back in official hands, the World Cup went ahead as planned and England earned their first win.
At the next World Cup in 1970 in Mexico City, three nations—Uruguay, Italy, and Brazil—were in a position to take their third championship and win possession of the Rimet in perpetuity. When Brazil beat Italy 4–1 in the final, a new World Cup—the one we are familiar with now—was commissioned. The Rimet went to the headquarters of the Brazilian Football Confederation, where it was locked up in a case made of bulletproof glass—and a plywood back. Perhaps the only surprise here is that the Rimet was safe and sound for another 13 years. In 1983, it went missing for a second and final time.
The police investigation was woefully inconclusive. The most common account held that the trophy had been sold to an Argentinian gold dealer who melted it down into bars, but there was no evidence to support this and some to refute it. For one thing, the Jules Rimet trophy was not solid gold. No arrests were made. Fourteen years passed.
In 1997, the estate of jeweler George Bird released the replica Rimet for auction at Sotheby's with a reserve price of £20,000-30,000. Fueled by rumors of a bait-and-switch in the locker room after the 1966 World Cup championship match, some in FIFA believed the trophy up for auction to be the genuine one. They bid accordingly, taking the trophy home for more than ten times the reserve. On inspection, the trophy was indeed a confirmed replica, leaving FIFA and the fans to wonder about the true trophy's fate.
Last year, in 2015, the original stone base of the trophy was discovered in storage in the basement of FIFA headquarters. The piece, which is now on display in the FIFA World Football Museum in Zurich, carries only four plaques, one on each side, for the first four tournament champions. After West Germany won the 1954 Cup, the original Abel Lafleur base had to be replaced to accommodate more winners. By the time of the 1958 Cup in Sweden, the German FA had possessed the trophy for four years; there are some who suspect that more than the base had been switched by the time the Rimet came back into circulation.
There are many questions here, and few answers to speak of. How many Jules Rimet trophies are there? Where is the Lafleur original? And if a known replica can fetch £395,000 in 2016, as it did in the auction won by Hublot, how much could the genuine trophy possibly be worth?
It's been 50 years since the Jules Rimet trophy first went missing. As fans stream past the statue of Hilderaldo Luiz Bellini on their way to watch Olympic football in Maracanã Stadium this weekend, they will have the chance to stop and consider the value of the world's own beautiful game—and of its most mysterious artifact. One is a lot more accessible than the other.
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