Tarnished history of greatest prize in sport

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When O.J. Simpson is accused of the armed robbery of signed footballs and baseballs, you know one thing for sure: the market in sports memorabilia has overheated.

The notorious former American footballer says he was in the Las Vegas hotel room last week only to reclaim items that were his. But if Simpson was convicted, he would be part of a great tradition. Bits of sports memorabilia have been stolen for over a century. Twice, the biggest prize of all was stolen: the Jules Rimet (pictured), the original trophy of soccer’s World Cup. I believe the Jules Rimet, the Maltese Falcon of sport, was not melted down as commonly believed but is still around, probably in some back-room in Brazil.

The Victorians invented everything, including theft of sports memorabilia. On September 11 1895, the FA Cup disappeared from a football outfitter’s shop window in Birmingham. Only in 1958 did Harry Burge, a homeless octogenarian living in a Birmingham hostel, tell a newspaper he had taken the “Little Tin Idol” and melted it down to make fake half-crown coins. As a measure of the trophy’s hypothetical value today, its successor was auctioned two years ago for £488,000.

When Jules Rimet created the football World Cup in 1930, the Parisian sculptor Abel Lafleur produced the trophy itself: a 35cm-high Nike, the Greek goddess of victory. The potential for theft was obvious. Nike spent the second world war hiding under the bed of an Italian football official. But one Sunday in 1966, she was stolen from a stamp exhibition in London. The Brazilian football association, the CBD, which had just handed over the trophy its team had held since 1958, was livid. “It would never have happened in Brazil,” said the CBD’s Alain Tebel. “Even Brazilian thieves love football and would never commit this sacrilege.”

The Wednesday after the theft, England’s football association received a parcel containing the top of the missing cup and a ransom note. It said: “No doubt you view with very much concern the loss of the World Cup. To me it is only so much scrap gold. If I don’t hear from you by Thursday or Friday at the latest, I assume its one for the POT.”

The sender of the note was Edward Betchley, a former soldier who had been demobbed after the war with an “exemplary character”. Betchley was jailed for two years. In 1969, he died of emphysema, the first victim of the curse on the cup’s thieves.

The stolen trophy was soon found by a dog named Pickles under some bushes in south London. After the World Cup final of 1966, it was presented to the winning English team. “It’s only 12in high, solid gold, and it means that England are the world champions!” BBC commentator Kenneth Wolstenholme famously exulted.

In 1970, Brazil won their third World Cup and were given the Jules Rimet forever. But, in 1983, the trophy was stolen from a glass case in the CBD’s offices in Rio de Janeiro and was never seen again. Four thieves were caught and sentenced. Three are now dead. One, a former policeman named Chico Barbudo, was gunned down in a bar while out on appeal. Rio’s police say the trophy was melted down into bars. That claim allowed them to abandon their hunt. But it was probably false.

The trophy wasn’t turned into gold bars because it wasn’t solid gold to begin with. “It’s just gold over silver,” says Martin Atherton, whose book The Theft of the Jules Rimet Trophy is out next month. The Brazilian thieves may have thought, along with Wolstenholme and almost everyone else, that it was gold. But after discovering it wasn’t, and that its metal value in 1983 was a modest $13,000, they quite probably decided they could get more selling it to an aficionado, even if he could never display it publicly. This often happens with stolen paintings.

The sole survivor of the gang of 1983 is the Argentine jeweller Juan Carlos Hernández. The year after the theft, he founded a company called Aurimet, a name that appears to conflate “Au” – the chemical symbol for gold – with Rimet. Eventually Hernández was sentenced to three years in jail but he was only captured in 1998 at a Brazilian airport, carrying 7.75kg of cocaine. He was released from jail in 2005.

Investigators said Hernández had melted down the trophy at his foundry in Rio. He denies it was melted down. A chemical analysis of his foundry found traces of gold of a different quality from the trophy. And his methods allowed him to melt only 250g of gold at a time, whereas the trophy weighed 1.8kg. Atherton says: “They never pinned it down, that it had been melted. But they never got it back.”

It’s the greatest prize in sport. At a Fifa workshop in Munich in 2004, an official of the global football authority said: “The Jules Rimet trophy was the people’s trophy. People knew something about this trophy: it was stolen, or got lost.” The current World Cup, he admitted, arouses less emotion.

It is quite likely that the Jules Rimet is still out there, probably in some wealthy crook’s house, outshining all the glitter that O.J. was chasing.

simonkuper-ft@hotmail.com

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