Not even the “Ocean’s Eleven” crew could have pulled it off. The breathtaking heist went down on March 20, 1966, in London. The target was the World Cup.
England would be hosting the soccer tournament that summer. Despite being the birthplace of the beautiful game, the nation had never actually won the cup. Fifty-four-million English people hoped the losing streak would end on home soil. So four months before kickoff, amid a storm of hype, the World Cup trophy was put on display at Central Hall Westminster, an events venue in the heart of London, as the showpiece of a stamp exhibition.
Named after Jules Rimet, who had launched the World Cup, the trophy was a marvel. “It’s a work of art and an object of great historical significance,” said Simon Kuper, a soccer expert and the co-author of “Soccernomics.” Designed in 1929 by sculptor Abel Lafleur and made of gold-plated silver and lapis lazuli, it depicted the ancient Greek goddess of victory, Nike.
But then someone nicked Nike. Only a day after the start of the exhibition, the trophy vanished. Guards were clueless as to how it could have happened. “Nothing at all went wrong with our security,” said one, “the cup just got stolen.”
The news traveled around the world, and England became an international laughingstock. A sports official from Brazil, which had won the World Cup twice, called the theft “a sacrilege that would never have been committed in Brazil” because Brazilian gangsters venerated soccer.
Scotland Yard put its best detectives on the case. Their strategy to get the trophy back: “Well, we’re hoping. Either that it’s returned, or that we find out where it is.”
To be fair, the investigators had little to go on. Their sole lead was that “a suspicious-looking man” had been seen exiting the hall minutes before the cup’s absence was noticed. He was described as “early 30s, of average height with thin lips, greased black hair and a possible scar on his face.”
On March 21, Joe Mears, the chairman of the Football Association (FA), soccer’s governing body in England, received a package, according to historian Martin Atherton. Inside was the “removable lining from the top of the trophy” and a ransom note for £15,000. It was signed by a man calling himself “Jackson.” If Mears got the cops involved or talked to journalists, Jackson threatened, he would melt the cup.
Mears called Jackson to set up the swap. But he double-crossed the thief and informed Scotland Yard, which put together a briefcase of fake bills and promised to have undercover agents by his side.
At the last minute, Mears got an angina attack and couldn’t leave bed. It was therefore agreed with Jackson that Mears’s assistant, McPhee, would meet him instead. McPhee was actually a cop.
Jackson showed up alone at the swap. He looked nothing like the man seen at the scene of the crime. McPhee opened the suitcase and flashed him the money, which appeared real. Jackson explained he didn’t have the trophy with him, telling McPhee, “You will have to trust me and come with me for about a 10 minute drive, where I can pick up the cup.”
The two men left in McPhee’s car. The undercover cop was driving, and Jackson, looking in the rearview mirror, spotted “a funny old van” tailing them. Suspecting it was the police, he threw himself out of the moving car. A high-octane chase ensued. McPhee ended up arresting Jackson.
Jackson’s real name was Edward Betchley. He had a rap sheet as a petty thief but pleaded his innocence. “I didn’t steal the cup,” he insisted, explaining he’d been “offered £500 to act up as an intermediary” by someone called the Pole.
Scotland Yard was at a loss. Meanwhile, the FA, afraid the trophy would never be recovered, had a replica secretly made.
On March 27, a man named David Corbett took his dog Pickles for a walk in South London. Pickles was playing around on the ground when Corbett noticed “this package laying there, wrapped just in newspaper.” It was the World Cup.
The trophy went back to the FA, which promised to lock it up. Meanwhile, Pickles became an international sensation.
England may have had a disastrous start to the World Cup, but it got a fairy tale ending. It ended up winning the tournament, its one (and so far) only victory. After the game, Queen Elizabeth II handed the trophy to English captain Bobby Moore.
No one was ever arrested for the theft. The mystery persisted for decades, until a well-connected reporter got a startling tip.
“One day in 2017,” said Tom Pettifor, the crime editor at the British tabloid the Mirror, “a contact of mine mentioned that they knew who had stolen” the World Cup.
The contact gave two clues: The culprit’s name was “Sidney Kew,” and he hailed from the “Walworth Road area” in South London, which Pettifor knew “was a tough, tough area” back then.
Pettifor set out to track Kew down. The investigation is recounted in his podcast “Stealing Victory” and in the documentary “1966: Who Stole the World Cup?” which aired this month on Channel 4 in Britain.
Pettifor pored over the police files from 1966 and realized that Betchley “had been arrested very close to the Walworth area.” He thought, “there’s something to this tip-off.”
Eventually Pettifor identified Sidney Kew. His full name was Sidney Cugullere.
Cugullere, Pettifor learned, grew up poor in London. He became a robber and was “jailed for most of his adult life.” Cugullere also fit the description of the man who had been seen leaving the exhibition after the heist.
Pettifor got in touch with Cugullere’s nephew, Gary, who confirmed “that his uncle had stolen the World Cup.” Gary also revealed Cugullere had died a few years earlier. At his funeral, the wreaths were made to resemble the World Cup trophy. The mystery of the trophy heist, it turned out, wasn’t a mystery to the culprit’s friends and family.
Pettifor found out Cugullere had not intended to steal the trophy. “I’ve been told by people that knew Cugullere that he said he’d gone to Central Hall to case the stamps,” Pettifor said, adding that “the theft of stamps was a big thing in the 60s.”
The exhibition was closed for the day, but Cugullere found a way inside. He realized the trophy was easier to steal since “it was by itself.” The guards meant to protect it “were sitting in an annex having a cup of tea.” So Cugullere grabbed the trophy, hid it under his jacket and walked out.
But the toughest challenge lay ahead. As Pettifor put it: “Thieves say normally you don’t steal something unless you have someone to sell it to first.” Cugullere had no buyers. His attempt to blackmail the FA ended in disaster. His friend Betchley was arrested and charged with theft and extortion. “At the time,” Pettifor explained, “you could get a life sentence for [that].”
Yet Betchley went to jail for only two years, leading some to speculate that Cugullere might have struck a deal with the police. All we know is that, out of nowhere, Pickles found the cup a few days later.
But that was not the end of the story. The trophy was stolen again in 1983 in Brazil. As it turned out, not even Brazilian thieves could resist its lure. After the Seleção had won its third World Cup in 1970, the country was permanently given the trophy, which it kept in the offices of its Football Confederation.
After the robbery, Brazilian police concluded the cup had been melted into gold bars. But Kuper, who has reported on the case for the Financial Times, said it wouldn’t make sense to melt down a trophy that’s just plated in gold. “The value of the trophy is not the metal but the significance,” he said.
Kuper believes the cup was sold to a “crooked collector” sometime in the 1980s. “I think it’s quite a likely outcome that the Jules Rimet [trophy] is in somebody’s cupboard,” he said, “and they don’t want to talk about it because they got it through criminality.”