From a design perspective, the FIFA World Cup Trophy is arguably the most disappointing prize in sports.
In contrast to the megaspectacle at the 81,000-seat Luzhniki Stadium on Sunday expected to draw 3.5 billion viewers, the winning team will be handed a small, hollow object that could’ve been more fitting for a karaoke tournament instead of the world’s premier soccer competition.
We can perhaps overlook the trophy’s clichéd motif depicting two figures holding a sphere—the most elementary illustration of human achievement. Milanese sculptor Silvio Gazzaniga was using a trope dating back to mythological depictions of Atlas bearing the globe. Reflecting on the trophy’s design shortly before he passed away in 2016, Gazzaniga said:
To create a universal symbol of the harmony of the sports world, I took inspiration from two fundamental images: the triumphant athlete and the world… The athlete is the absolute protagonist of the work and lifts the world in the happiness and enthusiasm of victory. Whoever wins such a difficult and prestigious competition becomes a giant in the moment of victory and their prize, the Cup, needs to express all of this.
In the early-1970’s, Gazzaniga’s design was actually considered revolutionary. “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,” Jack Williams writes in Narratively. “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.”
But what was cool in 1974, is unimpressive today, as NPR’s Laura Lorson observed. “It looks like HR Giger designed it: the ‘Alien’ of trophy design. I’ve never seen it up close, but in the pictures I have seen, it seems to be all webbing and arms and people supporting the world in such a way that they look like a giant talon-y claw,” wrote Lorson in 2010 describing the muddy expressionist sculpting. “Frankly, it’s just kind of creepy.”
USA Today’s sports writer likened the trophy to a burrito. “From a distance, it looks like a burrito from a food truck that uses gold-colored foil. Relatively cool up close, an unshapely blob from afar. It’s like an Impressionist painting, in reverse.”
And the Guardian’s Tom Meltzer points out a seemingly obvious conceptual flaw in very shape of the World Cup trophy. “It’s not a real cup,” he writes. “A cup is supposed to be bowl-shaped. The World Cup trophy’s just a lump. A (probably) hollow lump. And yet FIFA refuses to change the name of the tournament accordingly.”
Beyond surface aesthetics, the World Cup trophy’s biggest flaw is its size. Standing 14.4 inches (36.8 cm) tall, Gazzaniga likely took cues from FIFA’s original Jules Rimet trophy which measured 14 inches high. Designed by the French sculptor Abel Lafleur—a statuette depicting the Greek goddess of victory Nike bearing a cup—it was conceived in 1929 when the World Cup was a considerably smaller spectacle.
Designers of sports trophies work with a very specific set of criteria. A good trophy must photogenic; its details must look good up close and register well from a distance. For heavily branded sports spectacles these days, the trophy is also an opportunity for promotion. “Organizations are much more cognizant that awards are part of their marketing mix,” explains Bob Bennett, the proprietor of a California-based custom trophy design shop. “If they’re smart marketers, they’ll do something that’s integrated with their overall branding,” he said to the Dutch magazine Works That Work.
A trophy’s weight is also of great concern. A trophy that’s too light will appear flimsy, while one that’s too heavy will result in embarrassingly pained expressions at the award ceremonies, like what happened at a 2013 sumo tournament in Tokyo. Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe had to get assistance from an aide to hand over humungous trophy to the victor, the Mongolian sumo wrestler Harumafuji Kōhei.
A too-heavy a trophy can even strain an athlete. Tennis superstar, and incessant trophy biter, Rafael Nadal couldn’t hoist the 30 lb (14kg) French Open’s Coupe des Mousquetaires cup over his head, after suddenly getting an arm cramp during the winners’ ceremonies in 2014.
The size of World Cup trophy also presents a more pragmatic issue for organizers. After the 2038 World Cup, organizers anticipate that they’ll run out of space to engrave the name of the victor following its longstanding tradition. It’s unclear if Gazzaniga planned its obsolescence, but FIFA could seize the opportunity to work with new design talent to conjure a more fitting prize.
For an example of good trophy design, flip to the Wimbledon’s men’s singles final, which also happens to be this Sunday.
First presented 131 years ago, the gilded silver cup inscribed with the words, “All England Lawn Tennis Club Single Handed Championship of the World,” is as stately as it is celebratory.
With intricate moldings, winged helmets under the handles, and a playful pineapple topper, the Gentleman’s Cup evokes British tradition which makes sense for the world’s oldest Grand Slam tournament, notorious for upholding various traditions such as requiring all players to abide by a strict all-white dress code and dictating the proper queuing etiquette for spectators.
Even the most minute production details of the trophy are seeped in tradition. Since 1979, 80-year-old Polish engraver Roman Żółtowski and his assistant drive 850 miles from Poznan to Wimbledon to etch the winner’s name on trophies. Zoltowski prefers to endure the 19-hour drive, after airport security once confiscated his miniature chisels, suspecting them to be weapons.
Functionally, the Gentleman’s Cup is perfectly proportioned for the solo victor. Measuring 18 inches (46cm) with a diameter of 7.5 inches (19 cm), it’s light enough to be easily held aloft or clutch with one hand during the court side interview. (The singles winner gets to hold the original cup for about an hour and goes home with a smaller replica.) Winners though have to be careful, as the Wimbledon trophy, unlike the FIFA statuette, is actually a cup with a proper lid. Andy Murray, who won the right to to hold the precious vessel in 2013, discovered this when the lid popped out as he sat down.
“I think I have to leave it here, but that’s okay. It’s such a nice trophy,” said eight-time Wimbledon champion Roger Federer when he first got his hands on the cup in 2003. “Holding this trophy is so nice… Thanks to everybody, this was great,” holding back tears as he easily hoisted the cup high in the air.