Photo by Andrea Pagliarulo

In 1971, the organizers of the World Cup found themselves without a cup to call their own. The year before, Pelé’s Brazil had won the tournament for the third time, which meant they got to keep the trophy. As Brazil’s captain, Carlos Alberto, held the trophy aloft on a blazing hot day in Mexico City’s Azteca Stadium, there was a sense that the title, previously kept by the winning team for the four years in between tournaments, really was coming home.

That trophy — a fourteen-inch high, gold-plated sculpture of Nike, the Greek goddess of victory, hoisting an octagonal cup above her head — was named after Jules Rimet, a former president of FIFA, soccer’s governing body. It was first presented to Uruguay, in 1930. Won by Italy in 1934 and ’38, it spent World War II hidden in a shoebox to prevent the Nazis from taking it. In 1966 it was stolen from a public exhibition in Westminster, only to be recovered by a curious dog named Pickles, who found it wrapped in newspaper and stashed under a hedge outside his owner’s home. The trophy was stolen again in 1983, from the offices of the Brazilian Football Confederation, and never recovered.

With its new trophy, FIFA decided not to go in-house with the design process, soliciting fifty-three submissions from seven countries. One came from a quiet, private sculptor from Milan named Silvio Gazzaniga, a fifty-year-old who had spent his life creating symbols of other people’s success.

Gazzaniga grew up during World War II and spent his youth admiring fine jewelry and the architecture of Milan. He designed his first medal as a teenager, and spent the next three decades working on jewels and skiing trophies, finally rising to creative director at Milanese trophy design firm Bertoni. It was there he learned of FIFA’s search for a new trophy. Interviewed last month through a translator, Gazzaniga, now ninety-three and still living in Milan, reminisced about the competition.

“I closeted myself away in my studio, situated in the artists’ quarters of Milan,” he says. “I began work immediately.”

Tucked away for a week, Gazzaniga, in his modest-sized studio near Sforza Castle, etched and molded as the ideas flowed. Gazzaniga, a soccer fan who, perhaps unsurprisingly, supports AC Milan, said that he was aware of the history and significance of the previous trophy.

“The Rimet Trophy was a perfect example of the end of the 1800s way to conceive a cup,” he says. “My design was a good example of the end of the 1900s way to conceive a trophy.

“FIFA approached the old trophy as a precious jewel," he continued. "The Rimet Trophy was a jewel, but, in 1971, FIFA was aware of the era of television and they were looking for something more photogenic, soft and good-looking on TV — a new symbol updated for the end of century…a precious sculpture, not a squared jewel.”

Silvio Gazzaniga poses with his trophy.
Silvio Gazzaniga poses with his trophy.

And so Gazzaniga set out to make something a little more flowing than the rigid old trophy. Aesthetic pleasure overcame everything else as he molded a wide base that narrowed before shooting out again, where its lines sprung upwards, spiraling, to receive the world that sat at its top. The World Cup.

Shaped into these lines would be “a human being — the hero — but not alone, because the game and every match is done by two teams, two wills opposing and acting together,” Gazzaniga says. “Energy, force, strength, dynamism, roughness, agility, speed, success, achievement, victory, triumph. All this had to turn around and embrace the world, who is over all and over every single man.”

Happy with his mold and sketches, Gazzaniga submitted his design to FIFA. In the age before email, it would be months before he heard anything.

“I was proud of my design and was happy with the result,” he says, “but I honestly did not expect such a success.”

After months of suspense, a message came from FIFA: His design had been chosen. Compared to the bland silver cups given as prizes for most European football competitions, Gazzaniga’s design was flamboyant, an irresistible representation of exaltation and joy. What’s more, it would undoubtedly look mighty and appealing on TV — the champion’s hands wrapped around the contesting opponents; the sun’s light shimmering off the curvature of the globe.

Modest and down-to-earth, the designer describes his emotions at the time as nothing more than “happy” and “proud,” but admits that he was a little overwhelmed when he saw his trophy on the world’s stage for the first time, in 1974.

“The first time is everything, for me,” he said, reminiscing about the sight of the West German captain Franz Beckenbauer collecting his trophy. “The One.”

Since that moment, the trophy has been lifted by some of the greatest players ever to play the game, from Maradona to Zidane.

The triumphant Spanish squad hoists the trophy after winning the World Cup in 2010. (Photo: Anthony Stanley / Wikipedia Commons)
The triumphant Spanish squad hoists the trophy after winning the World Cup in 2010. (Photo: Anthony Stanley / Wikipedia Commons)

For Gazzaniga, any memory of Italy’s World Cup wins in 1934 and 1938 was blocked out by the economic harshness of the times. That meant he was extremely moved when he finally got to see his nation lift the cup that he has designed, in 1982 and 2006.

Today, FIFA regulations state that Gazzaniga’s trophy — 14.5 inches high, hollowed and made of eighteen-carat gold — cannot be taken home by any nation. Every four years, the winner receives a replica as a reminder of their victory, while the permanent trophy’s base is etched with the year and the champion’s name.

Designing the trophy elevated Gazzaniga’s career: He was later asked to design other internationally-recognized soccer trophies, like the UEFA Cup and the UEFA Super Cup. But none is more iconic than the swirling gold of the World Cup prize, which remains beautiful no matter how many players grip it with muddy, sweaty hands.

“For me, the time when I was protective over the trophy stopped in 1971,” he says. “Players can touch it, win just one, or, if they are lucky, two. But the FIFA World Cup is mine forever — I’m the real winner.”

*   *   *

Jack Williams is a British journalist living in New York. He has written sports features for the likes of The New York Times and the New York Daily News. Twitter: @itsjackwilliams

Other stories from The Beautiful Game

Tales From The Pitch

From the roar of the stadium stands to the chaos of the sandlot, five stories of triumph, despair and head-on soccer collisions.

How a Fabled Soccer Club Reclaimed Its Sacred Ground

In 1979, Argentina's military government forced the San Lorenzo soccer team out of the Buenos Aires stadium it had called home for sixty years. Now, the fans are taking it back.

The Greatest Fans on Earth

A startup soccer team in Dortmund once gave the steelworkers and coalminers of this hardscrabble German city something to live for. A century later, their die-hard descendants are still bleeding black and yellow.

The Halftime Hero from West Ham

How an English Premier League manager once silenced a saucy fan by inviting him on to the field to see if he could do any better.
Published with Marquee