My quest for football’s Holy Grail

Image of Simon Kuper

Where is the Jules Rimet trophy? Football’s original world cup vanished in Rio de Janeiro in 1983 – or perhaps in Europe in the 1950s. Either way, the gilded statuette is missing. Almost everyone thinks it was melted down into gold bars in a Brazilian foundry. However, that’s probably wrong. I’ve hunted football’s version of The Maltese Falcon for years, and I believe it’s still around. Recent work – including the documentary Rimet Trophy, by Lorenzo Garzella, Filippo Macelloni and César Meneghetti – elucidates the mystery.

When the Frenchman Jules Rimet created the World Cup, he needed a trophy. In 1929, the Parisian sculptor Abel Lafleur made him a 30cm statuette of Nike, Greek goddess of victory. Crucially, the trophy wasn’t solid gold: merely silver coated with gold. Yet nobody could resist it.

According to the documentary, the first people to try to steal football’s greatest prize were the Nazis. During the war they searched the Roman apartment of the Italian football official Ottorino Barassi, but couldn’t find the Rimet. They missed the shoebox hidden under Barassi’s bed.

After West Germany became world champions in 1954, the Rimet went to Frankfurt. Jim Lynch and Joe Coyle, now writing a book about the Rimet, believe that the trophy disappeared in 1957 or 1958 while under German control. The photojournalist Coyle noticed in photographs that the 1954 trophy didn’t look like the one awarded in Sweden in 1958. The 1958 trophy was 5cm taller and had a markedly different base. Lynch and Coyle established that the cup that reached Sweden from Germany in 1958 was a replica. That would mean the Rimet had then already disappeared.

But some kind of cup, calling itself the Rimet, arrived in London in 1966 for the World Cup in England. Famously, that March it was stolen from an exhibition. A week later, a dog named Pickles found the cup under a bush in south London.

That is well-known. Less well-known is that after Pickles’ discovery, England’s Football Association secretly asked the jeweller George Bird to make a replica. Bird produced a gilded bronze trophy that looked just like the cup Pickles had found, writes Martin Atherton in his book The Theft of the Jules Rimet Trophy. Now there were two Rimets, or perhaps three if the original had indeed disappeared in the 1950s.

Bird’s tale has a curious postscript. After he died in 1995, his family auctioned his replica. “Copy of the Jules Rimet Cup”, said the description of lot 80 at a Sotheby’s auction in 1997. At auction, Bird’s cheap bronze fake went for an astonishing £254,500. The winning bidder was anonymous.

“It was an absurd price,” a friendly auctioneer told me. “Unless you know it’s the real world cup. And the winning bidder knew.” The winning bidder presumably believed that in 1970, the English had performed a secret switch: kept the real Rimet and sent Bird’s replica to Mexico, host of the next tournament.

That anonymous bidder turned out to be Fifa, the global football authority. In 2006, I asked Fifa if it had thought Bird’s trophy was the real Rimet. I didn’t expect a reply. But Fifa’s media office emailed back: “Yes, Fifa took the decision to buy this trophy as it was thought to be the original one.”

However, Fifa was wrong. The trophy it bought turned out to be merely Bird’s replica. England had sent the real Rimet – or at least what it thought was the Rimet – to Mexico.

When Brazil won its third World Cup in Mexico in 1970, it was allowed to keep the Rimet – or perhaps a 1950s German-made replica. In 1983, the trophy was stolen from Brazil’s football federation in Rio. Nobody has seen the thing since. Brazilian police found the thieves but not the trophy – the investigators said it had been melted down into gold bars. Having told this story, the police felt free to drop the case.

But the story has holes. For a start, the Rimet couldn’t be melted into gold bars because it wasn’t solid gold. Most likely, the German replica wasn’t all gold either. Moreover, the police had no evidence the trophy had been melted down. Indeed, the convicted Argentine gold dealer Juan Carlos Hernández testified that he didn’t melt it down. An analysis of his foundry found traces of gold of a different quality from the trophy.

At my request, the journalist Andrew Downie put these points to Pedro Berwanger, the Brazilian federal police officer who led the original investigation. Berwanger admitted: “Nobody really knows what happened to the cup. I wouldn’t sign a document swearing it was melted down.” He told Downie the trophy would be worth most intact: “It’d almost be like having the Holy Grail, owning this trophy.” Berwanger feels the investigation remains incomplete.

Most likely, the Rimet is now in some crooked collector’s backroom, either in Brazil or Europe. I will keep looking.

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