Not one of the more than 74 million people who gave a thumbs-up to the iconic Instagram photo – the most liked in the platform’s history – realized that the World Cup trophy Leo Messi was lifting over his head was not the real one, but a replica. Not even the captain of the Argentina national team himself knew it was a fake. And when two FIFA officials told Messi’s teammate, Ángel Di María, to not let anyone else hold the trophy he had in his hands, he looked over at Messi, surrounded by people, riding on a teammate’s shoulders and holding and kissing a golden cup. “What the… What’s that then?” Di María asked, confused. “The one you have is the original,” one of them replied. “That’s why we’re here.”
More than 8,000 miles away in Argentina, with the euphoria of the victory still pulsing through her, artisan Eliana Pantano was watching the post-game celebrations on TV at her brother-in-law’s house. She had decided to wait to go out into the streets to celebrate: for her children, Bastián and Martina, aged six and eight, and so she could cry and enjoy the moment in private. On the screen, she saw Messi lifting the cup, and from the reflection of the light on its finish, she knew it was not real gold. She hesitated: “It looks… just like mine.” When the camera focused in on Antonela Roccuzzo, Messi’s wife, kissing the trophy, she knew for certain: the green rings on the base were not real malachite, but brushstrokes she had painted with her own hands.
Was she hallucinating? Were the world champions actually holding one of the two replicas she had made, and which she knew her clients had taken to the stadium on the day of the final? She couldn’t believe it. Silently, she thought back on the parade floats she used to make with her family for carnivals in Gualeguaychú, Argentina; to the time when she studied Fine Arts, and to the pain of having to cut her studies short; to her decision to make a trophy replica for the Copa Libertadores, South America’s top club soccer competition, and then to her surprise when different clubs started asking her to make more. She thought about all of her successes, before 2018, when the police raided her parents’ house and CONMEBOL (the South American Football Confederation) filed a lawsuit against her for plagiarism.
She thought about her arrhythmia, induced by stress, and all the frustrations and health problems that led her to decide that her health, and that of her family, came first, and then to the disenchantment that followed. And now, finally, this. “Eli!” shouted Fernando, her husband, “Es tu copa! It’s your cup!” “No!” she replied, knowing that it was, but afraid to break the spell of her illusion. “Yes, Eli, look, it has a little hole!” And he pointed to the hole, a tiny little divot in Africa – the sort of detail that is often a point of discussion every time Pantano is close to finishing a piece, when her husband and brother try to convince her its finished, telling her, “Look, you can barely tell.” But she insists on perfection, because she wants her replicas to be as close as possible to the originals, in this case, to the trophy designed by Italian sculptor Silvio Gazzaniga.
Pantano knows every detail of every one of her works. It typically takes her about two to three weeks to finish one, but when demand is high, delivery times can be as far out as five or six months. She shapes the mixture of quartz and resin, then chisels, carves, and polishes the piece, paints the waves or the outline of the continents, then, with a small lathe like a dentist’s, engraves the final details; only then does she give the piece its final touch: a bath of gold, then the final finish of paint and lacquer.
Pantano’s World Cup replica was so identical to the original that, as the celebrations were winding down, a FIFA security agent spotted a couple holding the cup Messi had lifted up and approached them. No, he checked, it was not the original. “Sorry,” he said embarrassed, “you can keep on celebrating.”
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