Four months before England won the World Cup in 1966, it actually lost it when a London thief swiped the solid gold trophy awarded to the tournament champions. While Scotland Yard came up empty in its search for soccer’s ultimate prize, it took a pooch named “Pickles” to get his country out of a pickle and crack the case.
On March 20, 1966, a daring thief in London fulfilled the dreams of soccer players around the globe by putting his hands on the Jules Rimet Trophy. Four months before England was set to host the World Cup for the first time, panic and embarrassment swept the country when it was discovered that soccer’s greatest prize had gone missing.
Sport’s most coveted trophy had gone on display only 24 hours earlier when the National Stamp Exhibition opened in Westminster Central Hall, just a few hundred yards from Scotland Yard headquarters. The Stanley Gibbons stamp company had received permission from FIFA, soccer’s governing body, to display the hardware as part of its “Sports with Stamps” exhibit under the condition that it be guarded around the clock. The defense, however, proved porous as the burglar apparently struck on a Sunday morning while the exhibition was closed and a Methodist service was taking place on the hall’s ground floor. Money was apparently no object as the thief who pried open the back of the glass case swiped the small, solid gold trophy valued at $8,400, leaving untouched stamps worth $8.4 million.
Days later, English Football Association chairman Joe Mears received a package containing a piece of the trophy—which depicted Nike, the Greek goddess of victory—along with a ransom note demanding $42,000. In spite of the blackmailer’s threat to melt the trophy if the police were contacted, Mears alerted the authorities. The extortionist, who identified himself as “Jackson,” agreed to meet the soccer official at Battersea Park to arrange an exchange. When Jackson noticed the lurking police, however, he attempted an escape to no avail. The arrested man—47-year-old dockworker and petty thief Edward Betchley—claimed to be only a middleman and did not divulge the location of the stolen cup.
As Scotland Yard continued its furious search a week after the trophy’s disappearance, 26-year-old David Corbett stepped out of his house in a South London suburb to take a Sunday evening stroll with his black-and-white collie, Pickles. Eager to reach a nearby telephone booth to call his brother who was expecting a new baby, Corbett reached down to put a leash on the canine as he sniffed around a strange package located near the front tire of a neighbor’s car. Corbett picked up the small, but surprisingly heavy, parcel wrapped in tattered newspapers and bound tightly in string.
“At the time the IRA were active, and it was so tightly wrapped in newspaper I thought it might be a bomb,” Corbett recalled to the Manchester Evening News earlier this week. “So I put it down and then picked it up again a few times. Then I worked up the courage to pull away some of the paper and saw these discs saying ‘Uruguay winners’ and ‘Brazil.’” That’s when the soccer fan realized that Pickles had discovered the missing World Cup trophy.
Although his wife, who did not share his passion for soccer, wasn’t overly impressed with the find, Corbett dashed off to the police station so quickly that he forgot he was still wearing his slippers. He burst through the station doors and declared, “I think I’ve found the World Cup!” The gruff sergeant working at the front desk looked at the diminutive trophy and replied, “It doesn’t look very World Cup-py to me, Sonny.”
A detective called in to examine the find determined it was indeed the missing prize, and after some pointed questions, Corbett soon realized he was the prime suspect. After being interrogated into the early hours of the morning, Corbett was finally cleared of any connection to the theft.
Overnight, Pickles became a national hero for helping England avoid an international embarrassment. “This has saved our honor in the eyes of the world,” Mears told the press. While Corbett received more than $16,000 in reward money, Pickles secured the services of an agent, made numerous television appearances and inked a contract to appear in a feature film, “The Spy With the Cold Nose.”
Betchley, meanwhile, was found guilty for his role in the robbery. Whether he was indeed a middleman or acting alone has never been determined. Before being locked up for two years, he declared to the court, “Whatever my sentence is, I hope that England wins the World Cup.”
On July 30, 1966, Betchley’s hopes—as well as all of England’s—came true following his country’s dramatic 4-2 extra-time victory over West Germany in the World Cup final. Wearing a pair of long white gloves, Queen Elizabeth II handed over the very trophy rescued by Pickles to Bobby Moore, captain of England’s victorious squad.
Although Pickles had been relegated to watching the match from the comfort of home on his owner’s lap, the canine hero and his master were guests of honor at the team’s celebration dinner at a London hotel. To the cheers of thousands of delirious fans, Moore appeared on a hotel balcony and held the cup aloft—followed by Pickles. British Prime Minister Harold Wilson gave the dog a friendly pat on the head, and no one even minded when Pickles lifted his hind leg and heeded nature’s call near an elevator in the posh hotel.
Four years later, Brazil was awarded the Jules Rimet Trophy in perpetuity after winning its third World Cup, and FIFA began design of a new award that is now handed out to the tournament’s victors. It turned out that history repeated itself in 1983 when the Jules Rimet Trophy was stolen once again. No dog came to the rescue for a second time, however. The trophy has never been found and was likely melted down for its gold.
A year after garnering headlines, Pickles met an untimely end when he choked to death when his leash caught on a tree while chasing a cat. Corbett buried him in a humble grave in his back garden underneath a small plaque that reads: “Pickles, Finder of the World Cup 1966.”