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The Holy Grails

From the America's Cup to Olympic Medals, Sports Trophies Have Been Kissed, Caressed, Stolen, Smashed, Buried, But Above All, Coveted
Neil A. Grauer
From the Print Edition:
Laurence Fishburne, Jan/Feb 00

(continued from page 3)

The World Cup competition was the brainchild of Jules Rimet, a French attorney who founded the Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) in 1921. The first of the quadrennial World Cup tournaments was held in--and won by--Uruguay in 1930. Since then, the men's World Cup has grown into a truly global event, boasting 24 competing national teams and an estimated total television audience (over the course of the five-week competition) of 37 billion, twice the number of viewers who watch the Olympics. (With the U.S. women's World Cup triumph last year, the women's trophy, created in 1991, has begun to accumulate some of its older sibling's colorful cachet.)

The first World Cup trophy originally was called the Coupe du Monde de Football Association. During the Second World War, the Italian vice president of FIFA, Dr. Ottorino Barassi, purportedly hid it in a shoe box beneath his bed to prevent its capture by Allied or Axis soldiers. After the war, the cup was renamed in Rimet's honor. Removed from the safety of Barassi's shoebox, it would have a precarious future.

On March 20, 1966, four months prior to the opening of that year's World Cup competition in Britain, the 12-inch-high, solid gold cup--then insured for $84,000--was stolen from a locked display case in London's Central Hall, Westminster. Scotland Yard got on the case immediately. Some £6,000 in rewards were offered.

A ransom of £15,000 was demanded. A caller warned that if the ransom were not paid, the cup would be "one for the [melting] pot." In just six days, the Yard had its man--Edward Betchley, a 47-year-old dockworker and occasional "fancy goods dealer." The nine-pound cup was discovered two days later by a mongrel dog named Pickles. (We're not making this up.) David Corbett, the dog's owner, was taking Pickles for a stroll in South London when the pooch began sniffing at a parcel wrapped in newspaper and stashed in a yard. Pickles got a silver medal from the National Canine Defense League, a year's supply of dog food and a film contract at double the normal dog rate. Corbett got the reward money. Betchley (who claimed he was just a go-between for a mysterious man he called the Pole) got two years in jail. And England won the World Cup--the only time it has done so.

Four years later, when Brazil won the World Cup for the third time, it "retired" the Rimet trophy to the headquarters of the Brazilian Football Association, in Rio de Janeiro. A new World Cup--the one currently in use--was designed by Italian sculptor Silvio Gazzaniga and presented for the first time in 1974. It is 14 1/5 inches high, solid 18-karat gold, and is insured for $200,000.

When the Rimet trophy was stolen in London, Abrain Tebel of the Brazilian Sports Confederation told the London Times: "It would never have happened in Brazil. Even Brazilian thieves love football and would never commit this sacrilege." He overestimated the soccer fealty of Brazilian crooks. In December 1983, thieves broke into the headquarters of the Brazilian Football Association and made off with the Rimet trophy. It was never recovered--having evidently found its fate in a Rio melting pot.

While the rest of the world may have its "football," the United States has what it considers the real deal. So quintessentially American is the gridiron classic that the creators of the Heisman Memorial Trophy, bestowed upon the nation's top college player, unabashedly claim it is "the most famous and coveted individual award in American athletics."

For many of the 64 players who have won the Heisman over the past 65 years (Archie Griffin of Ohio State won it twice, in 1974 and 1975), landing it was the stepping-stone to an illustrious--and lucrative--professional football career. For others, it was the apex of their athletic achievements.

In 1935, New York's Downtown Athletic Club commissioned a 23-year-old sculptor, Frank Eliscu, to design the prize, deeming the "traditional cup or bowl...too commonplace...for the athletic talent to be honored and immortalized."

Eliscu chose Ed Smith, a top member of the 1934 New York University football team, as his model. His clay effort was inspected by Fordham coach Jim Crowley--one of the fabled "Four Horsemen" of Notre Dame--who suggested that Eliscu have some of the Fordham players also pose for him to further refine the statuette.


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