World Cup soccer is a phenomenon like no other. It’s one of the few events with the power to bring together more than half the planet’s population for one month. According to some news stories, the World Cup wields so much power, it has brought about ceasefires in the bloodiest of conflicts. Entire nations feel a great sense of pride when their team advances or wins any of the 64 games that culminate with the hoisting a heavy vermeil trophy designating the world’s best players.
Soccer, or something like it, has been played for millennia. A Chinese game known as “cuju,” which was described in writings around 206 B.C., involved kicking a ball into a net. The sport began to evolve into its current form in 1863, following a series of meetings held in England that led to the creation of the Sheffield Rules, which prohibited the most aggressive and injurious tactics in official matches. Not long after this decree, the game split into two related but separate sports. Soccer, which is officially known as football everywhere on Earth except the United States and Canada, adopted the less aggressive laws of the game, while rugby, which is named for Rugby School in Rugby, England, where its rules were codified, retained the rougher style of play.
Today, soccer counts more participants than any other sport. There are nearly 250 million registered players, from every country in the world, according to soccer’s 118-year-old international governing body, the Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), which also oversees the World Cup. That number does not count the billions who play at home, in school, on the streets or anywhere that people can scare up a ball and two structures to serve as goal posts. The playing field, known as the pitch, need not be fancy or even of regulation size. It just needs to be accessible.
As the sport gained fans and recognition around the world, FIFA created six regional confederations registering nearly 190 amateur teams by nation. These teams compete for the final prize – the World Cup – as they have every four years since the first such competition was held, in 1930. The inaugural winner was Uruguay, and for their efforts, the team received the Coupe du Monde (French “World Cup”), a stylized figure of Victory fashioned from vermeil (gold over sterling silver) on a lapis lazuli base that weighed nearly nine pounds. In 1946, the cup was renamed the Jules Rimet Trophy to honor the FIFA president who created the World Cup competition in 1929.
In 1970, the Jules Rimet Trophy was permanently awarded to Brazil for having won three World Cups in accordance with FIFA rules at that time. A replacement trophy was designed and dubbed the FIFA World Cup’s Winners Trophy. The hollow trophy depicts two athletes holding up the world and is made from nearly 14 pounds of 18K gold on a base of malachite. National teams typically pose with the World Cup raised high after a spectacular win, but are given a FIFA bronze replica that they are allowed to keep. Replica trophies and players’ trophies occasionally come to auction, as with the December 2020 offering of a 1970 Jules Rimet player trophy that changed hands for $5,000.
World Cup memorabilia sparks almost as much competitive interest at auction as the actual games. Soccer is, of course, a team sport, with position players who defend, attack and pass. As in any sport, though, standout players gain fan followings. The list of the greatest soccer stars of all time will always include Pele and Diego Maradona, who dominated 20th-century competition. Both rank on any collector’s must-have list for early team sport cards and stickers in albums (which pre-date the soccer cards of the 1960s), except in later box sets. As with baseball, sports cards featuring legendary soccer players when they were rookies inspire heated auction competition.
Among 21st-century players, Kylian Mbappe, Lionel Messi, David Beckham, Neymar (no last name needed) and Cristiano Ronaldo are the most sought-after for autographs, jerseys, collectible cards, and albums of stickers. Memorabilia featuring these contemporary athletes command strong auction bids, with material from their rookie years being the hardest to find.
As for trading cards, soccer is unusual in that cards featuring its players were almost always sold in sets, not individually. Until recently, soccer cards were almost exclusive to Europe and rarely sold in North America. That has begun to change, and the speed of that change will only accelerate as the United States, Canada and Mexico prepare to welcome the World Cup in 2026, marking it the first time that three countries have jointly hosted the contest. Women soccer players are gaining recognition for their feats, as well. A soccer card featuring American Mia Hamm in her 1992 rookie year achieved $34,440 in June 2021, setting an auction record for the most expensive sports card depicting a woman athlete. Would-be collectors, take note: Industry reports state soccer card values grew by 1,600 percent in 2020, with rookie cards securing the biggest sums.
Autographs are, of course, an auction favorite. Matt Powers of Powers Sports Memorabilia stated in an interview with sportscollectorsdigest.com, “What makes them unique is soccer is the world’s number one most popular sport and has some of the biggest superstars [where the] growth potential for the market is much greater than other growing sports.” That is especially true for game-worn jerseys, World Cup soccer balls and other official game memorabilia such as tickets, programs, official credentials and early advertising posters. Prime examples sell for thousands at auction.
During the World Cup, you can walk down streets and alleys of almost any major city or town in the world and not miss a minute of the action as it plays on home televisions and personal radios. Nearly four billion people watched some part of the 2018 World Cup – almost half of the world’s population. It’s reasonable to estimate nearly five billion will watch at least some of the 2022 contest, which will be hosted by Qatar from November 20 through December 18. France is the defending champion.
There is no organized sport that unites the world as completely or as thoroughly as soccer. That’s what makes it “The Beautiful Game” in every way – collectible and otherwise.