The World Cup vanished 56 years ago — and this Ottawa man discovered it was missing

In this July 30, 1966 file photo, England midfielder Nobby Stiles, right, looks at the Jules Rimet Trophy as it's held by captain Bobby Moore following England's victory in the World Cup final. England hasn't won the World Cup since. (The Associated Press - image credit)
In this July 30, 1966 file photo, England midfielder Nobby Stiles, right, looks at the Jules Rimet Trophy as it's held by captain Bobby Moore following England's victory in the World Cup final. England hasn't won the World Cup since. (The Associated Press - image credit)

When John McLarens realized the World Cup had disappeared, all he could do was laugh.

In March 1966, McLarens was working as a security guard in a downtown London hall where the gold cup — then known as the Jules Rimet Trophy — was on exhibition.

England was hosting the global soccer tournament that summer and the trophy was being showcased at Methodist Central Hall as part of a big rare stamp show.

McLarens, an aspiring actor, would take all sorts of jobs just to pay the bills. On the day of the theft, he was part of a two-person team assigned to watch over incredibly precious stamps in the basement of the hall.

After hours keeping watch in the dark basement, he asked to switch with the guards on the sunlit main floor, where the trophy was.

But when McLarens began his rounds, he soon discovered the plinth that was supposed to hold the trophy was empty.

"I started to have a bit of a nervous chuckle," recalled McLarens, now 77 and living in the Ottawa suburb of Bells Corners. "I'm not a nervous person, but I just sort of went, there's something wrong here."

A 'massive story' at the time

With the 2022 World Cup in Qatar set to kick off this weekend, McLarens has shared his story in a new documentary called 1966: Who Stole The World Cup? that's airing in the United Kingdom.

The theft was a "massive story" both in the U.K. and across the globe, said Tom Pettifor, the crime editor for the London-based Daily Mirror and the documentary's co-producer.

"Various heads of football associations around the world spoke out with their anger at how the home of Scotland Yard could lose the World Cup under the noses of supposedly the best police force in the world," said Pettifor, whose investigative reporting eventually uncovered the identity of the thief who swiped the trophy.

"It made the nation a bit of a laughing stock. So it was with great relief that it turned up a week later."

While the trophy was later found — more on that in a bit — the immediate aftermath of the theft was pure chaos, McLarens said.

The Associated Press
The Associated Press

"I tell you, in 10 minutes, you could not move. There were hundreds of cops, it seemed like, all over the bloody place," he said.

"[They] swarmed into this hall. No one knew what was going on. They were running around like a bunch of penguins with their heads cut off. It was just crazy."

The canine hero

McLarens said a pair of detectives spotted him, and a few days later he was down at Scotland Yard sharing his theory: that the theft was an inside job.

For a few days, McLarens said, he was a suspect.

But they realized he was being honest, and in any case, a ransom note demanding about $26,000 Cdn soon arrived at the offices of the Football Association in London.

A meeting was arranged, but the thief never showed up. At roughly the same time, a small white-and-black collie dog named Pickles was going for a walk with his owner down a London street when he suddenly spotted something in a hedge.

It was the Jules Rimet Trophy, wrapped up in an old newspaper.

Central Press/Getty Images
Central Press/Getty Images

Thief took secret to his grave

According to the documentary, the real thief was a 39-year-old man named Sidney Cugullere who swiped the trophy after realizing the security around the stamps was simply too tight.

Cugullere died in 2005 at the age of 79, having never been identified.

England would go on to win the World Cup that summer, but it would be the last time they would hoist the Jules Rimet Trophy.

When Brazil won the tournament four years later, they were granted rights to the trophy in perpetuity, leading world soccer governing body FIFA to commission the current gold statuette awarded to World Cup champions.

Gianna Foggia/The Associated Press
Gianna Foggia/The Associated Press

Then in 1983, the old trophy was stolen once again — and despite the best efforts of police and Brazilian pet dogs, it hasn't been seen since.

As for McLarens, he says he got "a few drinks" regaling friends with tales of his involvement in the 1966 theft. More than five decades later, he's still a bit stunned by all the fuss around it.

"It was a puny little cup! It really is. It's like, 15 inches high. It was [only] worth, I think, about 3,000 pounds," he said.

"The 'Penny Black' stamps downstairs ... they were worth millions of pounds! And we were all worried about this cup."

Trevor Pritchard/CBC
Trevor Pritchard/CBC