AS the 2018 World Cup in Russia heads towards the pointy end (without any Aussie involvement) the Herald thought it time to have a look at what they’re all after; the golden cup and it’s very colourful history.
French sculptor Joseph Abel Lafleur designed the first trophy, which was awarded to inaugural World Cup winners Uruguay in 1930.
Lafleur had been born in Aveyron in 1875 and was fascinated by sculpture and engraving as a child, studying at the School of Fine Arts and working in the workshops of the era’s great masters.
A workaholic, he was already famous in the sporting world for his medals and trophies, when he was approached by FIFA’s first president Jules Rimet to design the trophy, which was originally known as Coupe du Monde but later renamed after the far-sighted president.
Lafleur took as his inspiration from the Hellenistic sculpture Winged Victory of Samothrace, which is at the Louvre and dates from somewhere between 200 and 190BC. It depicts Nike, the Greek goddess of victory celebrating an unknown naval battle and is also reputed to be the inspiration behind the iconic Rolls Royce hood ornament.
Lafleur was apparently told by Rimet to make the statue out of pure gold as a symbol of the World Cup’s prestige, but ultimately the 35cm statue was cast in gold-plated sterling silver with a lapis lazuli base.
Telling the world the statue was pure gold may have made the trophy all the more tantalising for each country’s national football team, but it also attracted the attention of plunderers.
The Nazis were reputedly the first to try a bit of cup plunder during WWII, searching FIFA vice-president Ottorino Barassi’s apartment when they couldn’t find it in the bank where it was supposed to be stored. The Nazi’s failed to look in the shoebox under Barassi’s bed, where the statue had been hidden, which was fortunate for the Italians who had earned the trophy in the ’38 World Cup after dictator Benito Mussolini’s rumoured encouragement: “Win or die”.
In 1966, the cup did disappear in the lead-up to the World Cup in England, and was found buried under a tree by a little dog called Pickles.
It had been placed in Westminster Central Hall for a stamp exhibition, with a condition it be under guard at all times. But there was a gap on Sundays, when the hall was used for Methodist services.
Guards patrolling the outside of the building at noon noticed the back doors had been forced open and the cup stolen.
Scotland Yard took over the case and allocated it to its Flying Squad which investigated robberies.
The next day, the chairman of the British Football Association, Joe Mears, received a ransom note demanding £15,000 for the trophy’s return – it had been insured for £30,000 but was valued at just £3000.
The police made up a fake ransom from ordinary paper with real banknotes on the top and bottom, and met one Edward Betchley, a petty thief and used car dealer. He fell for the ruse and agreed to take an undercover police officer to the trophy, but spotted that they were being tailed and tried to run away.
He was captured, convicted and sentenced to two years’ gaol.
Pickles became someting of a celebrity after sniffing out the trophy under a bush and appeared in some television shows and the odd movie, while his owner David Corbett – initially a suspect – received a grand reward.
FIFA created a replica trophy for exhibitions, but had an awkward moment when the next World Cup came around and it had to hide the replica under the creator’s bed. The replica was auctioned off in 1997 for £254,500, the price pushed up by rumours it had been inadvertently switched with the original. Turns out even FIFA fell for the rumours, as they were the ones to stump up the staggering price; you can imagine the long faces when testing revealed it was, indeed, the faux trophy.
In 1983 the trophy was stolen again in Rio de Janeiro, with the mastermind the banker and football club agent Sérgio Pereira Ayres. He co-opted two men to break into the Brazilian Football Confederation building and disarm the guards, stealing three trophies.
There was a theory that the trophy was melted down by the thieves and turned into gold bars, but as it was made of gold-plated sterling silver that doesn’t really stack up and the fate of the Cup remains a mystery to this day.
Photojournalist Joe Coyle is also in the process of writing a book in which he claims there was another switcheroo in Europe in the 1950s, after he noticed in photographs that the trophy appeared different, though it seems more likely that some clod simply broke the base and a new, larger one was stuck onto it.
The new cup was commissioned by FIFA for the 1974 World Cup, with Italian artist Silvio Gazzaniga given the commission.
It’s now 36.5cm tall and made of 5 kilograms of 18 carat gold worth about $161,000, although some say its real value is now in the multi millions.
It depicts two people holding up the Earth and now has 11 winners engraved on a base plate – but FIFA keeps the original under safe lock and key, only giving the winner a bronze replica.
by STEVE GRANT