The entire world looked on as Diego Maradona clutched the 1986 World Cup following what ESPN’s Roger Bennett later described as “the most virtuoso performance a World Cup has ever witnessed.” Following Argentina’s victory, every photographer scrambled to capture Maradona’s now-iconic grin, but as the crowd formed around him, he paid them no mind. He only had eyes for the trophy.
Ten years later, tears streamed down Michael Jordan’s face as he took centre stage following the 1996 NBA Finals. Hobbling towards the Larry O’Brien Trophy for the fourth time in his career and the first time since the death of his father, Jordan managed to choke out a few words to NBC’s Ahmad Rashad post-game before retiring to the locker room, clutching the championship as if it were his first.
In 2020, Clayton Kershaw walked slowly out of the dugout with both hands raised high over his head in utter disbelief that he and the Los Angeles Dodgers would hoist the Commissioner’s Trophy for the first time since 1988. With the trophy held above him like he were Rafiki presenting Simba to the world, Kershaw offered Los Angeles the everlasting image of victory that they’d thought would never come.
Such generational sports moments are often defined by the champions themselves, but through the many generations of athletes that cycle through the cultural zeitgeist, there is only one constant: the trophy. Gleaming hunks of precious metal that accessorize an athlete’s greatest triumphs; trophies are so much more than simply glorified paperweights. They are invaluable fragments of history, time capsules that allow us to reflect on championship teams long since forgotten. As the years pass, players fade into obscurity, but trophies live on, with a rich and complicated history hidden beneath their sheen.
But no trophy’s history is richer or more complex than those of the FIFA World Cup. Emblematic of the colourful lore surrounding the event itself, the famed international soccer tournament is so storied that its origins can be traced back to not only one trophy, but two.
Since the advent of the tournament in 1930, two trophies have been inducted into the World Cup’s lore: the Jules Rimet Trophy from 1930-1970 and the FIFA World Cup Trophy from 1974-present day. Originally titled “Victory,” but generally known simply as the Coupe du Monde, the trophy was rechristened in 1946 to honour Rimet, who first passed the vote to initiate the competition.
A true pioneer of international competition, Rimet helped found the Fédération Internationale de Football Association—known today as FIFA—and, following his time as a French officer in WWI, returned as President of the French Football Federation and the President of FIFA, where he held the post for a record 35 years. Under Rimet’s steadfast leadership, the World Cup was born in 1930, granting FIFA newfound authority and legitimacy on an international stage. But the order instituted by Rimet was short-lived.
During WWII, when Italy held the trophy, Ottorino Barassi—the Italian vice-president of FIFA and president of FIGC—was forced to transport the trophy secretly from a bank in the heart of Rome, hiding it in a shoebox under his bed to prevent the Nazis from taking it. In the years following the war—after Barassi had retrieved his shoebox—Rimet’s trophy enjoyed a brief period of stability, passing from champion to champion as was originally intended.
Then, on March 20, 1966—a mere four months before the tournament—the trophy was stolen during a public exhibition at Westminster Central Hall. Seven days later, it was found wrapped in newspaper at the bottom of a suburban garden hedge on Beulah Hill, Upper Norwood, not by authorities, but by a black and white mongrel dog named Pickles, who remains a beloved figure to historians of the game.
Four years later, Brazil would go on to win the World Cup for the third time, allowing them to keep the real trophy in perpetuity, as had been stipulated by Rimet decades before. Rimet’s trophy was put on display at the Brazilian Football Confederation headquarters in Rio de Janeiro in a cabinet with a front of bullet-proof glass. It was a fitting farewell for what everyone expected to be a well-earned retirement for the trophy that had travelled the globe, endured a war, and briefly served as the toy to a mongrel dog. But, of course, that would not be the case.
On December 19, 1983, the cabinet’s wooden backing was forced open with a crowbar and the cup was stolen for what would be the final time. Four men were tried and convicted in absentia for the crime, but Rimet’s legacy would never be recovered.
But few wasted time mourning the loss. Instead, countries began scrambling to design a replacement, hoping to earn the commission. Eventually, Italian artist Silvio Gazzaniga was awarded the opportunity, backed by Stabilimento Artistico Bertoni, an Italian manufacturer. Gazzaniga described the trophy thus, “The lines spring out from the base, rising in spirals, stretching out to receive the world. From the remarkable dynamic tensions of the compact body of the sculpture rise the figures of two athletes at the stirring moment of victory.” Sporting a unique design to that of its predecessor, today’s trophy also differs in that it cannot be won outright, with the tournament’s winners receiving only a replica.
When the current trophy was first announced, it signalled more than an aesthetic change, but the end of an era. That’s what’s so beautiful about the Stanley Cup, the Commissioner’s Trophy, and every iteration of the FIFA World Cup; their value isn’t determined by how much they can be melted down and sold for. It’s determined by their historical legacy and the moments they capture, like Uruguay winning the first-ever tournament or Pickles the mongrel dog finding Rimet’s trophy in a garden hedge. Today’s World Cup Trophy is building a similar legacy, accessorizing the crowning moments of our favourite athletes and remaining the lone constant through generations of competition.