‘What the effin’ hell do you think we’re going to do with that?’ How the World Cup was stolen

Television: Who Stole the World Cup?, about the theft of the Jules Rimet trophy, features honest, decent criminals, lairy coppers and Del Boy–style narration

Who Stole the World Cup? (Channel 4, Monday, 10pm) is a documentary about the notorious theft of the Jules Rimet trophy months before England were due to host the tournament, in 1966. But what it really wants to be is a footie-themed Guy Ritchie movie. The story it tells is a Cockney rhapsody. It is chock-full of honest, decent criminals, lairy coppers and a narrator who delivers lines such as “You bloody what?” as if he were Del Boy querying the price of a round.

It’s a shame the producers work the geezer angle so hard, as it obscures a fascinating tale. The original World Cup – subsequently awarded in perpetuity to Brazil – was swiped while on display at a stamp exhibition in central London. (The organisers included the trophy to attract extra vistors.)

It’s hard to say who were the biggest bunglers: the criminals, the cops or the FA. ‘It was British stupidity, it was Monty Python,’ says John McLarens, one of the guards who returned from his break to find the trophy half-inched

All sorts of rumours swirled, but of the cup there was not a squeak. In a panic, and against Fifa orders, the English Football Association commissioned a fake. Enter the Sweeney Todd – aka the flying squad – in hot pursuit of the bagman for the thieves. Then a dog named Pickles discovered the gong stashed under some bushes in London. “It’s Lassie meets the Italian Job meets some kind of Ealing comedy,” says one contributor.

The comic element is undeniable. It’s hard to say who were the biggest bunglers: the criminals, the cops or the FA. “It was British stupidity, it was Monty Python ... It was quite the thing,” says John McLarens, one of the guards who returned from his break to find the statue half-inched.

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McLarens, who speaks in a crystal-clear Canadian accent – the result of half a lifetime in North America – is one of several characters who feel drawn from fiction. He was a party animal in swinging London who had a bit part in Monty Python’s Flying Circus and whose flat became a drop-in centre for badly behaved rock stars. “One day there’s Keith Moon in a spacesuit. He had a star in his forehead,” he remembers of one such bash.

We are also introduced to Freddie Baldwin, the solicitor who represented Edward Betchley, the go-between for the police and the thieves (and previously the legal representative of Christine Keeler). “He had a licence to do whatever deal was needed to get the cup back,” says Baldwin’s son Frank. “A lot of criminals would go see him. Everybody knew each other.”

Farce is mixed with tragedy. Pickles, the mongrel who found the cup, was strangled the next year when his lead caught while he was chasing a cat up a tree. By then his owner, David Corbett, had treated himself to a new house, having trousered a reward worth the equivalent of £100,000.

But what about the thieves themselves? A Daily Mirror reporter, Tom Pettifor, identifies the ringleader as Sidney Cugullere, a career criminal hired to steal the stamps from that exhibition and who decided to make off with the World Cup for good measure. “What the effin’ hell do you think we’re going to do with that?” exclaimed his brother Reg after Sid showed him the Jules Rimet tucked inside his coat. They had no answer – and then the cup mysteriously turned up under a bush in south London.

It’s a great story. What a shame that Who Stole the World Cup? gets in the way by laying on the Vinnie Jonesisms. The cup isn’t stolen but nicked, for example, and when Corbett buys that new house he’s described as a lucky bastard.

“A mutt called Pickles sniffed it out of his front garden,” continues the narration. “How bloody British.” You could say that. Alas, Who Stole the World Cup? is in too much of a rush to paint the affair as a real-life episode of The Sweeney. It hits the crossbar when an open goal beckons.