Paolo Rossi was the man who, in 1982, won Italy the World Cup for a third time. En route to the Final his goals shot down Brazil and Poland. In the finale against West Germany it was Rossi who scored the first of Italy’s three goals. The striker from Tuscany finished as the 1982 World Cup’s top scorer – not bad considering he failed to score in the first four games.
His exploits in Spain earned him a place in Italian football’s Hall of Fame. Yet Rossi was fortunate to be involved in that World Cup. In 1979, a year after catching the eye during the 1978 World Cup in Argentina, Rossi was caught up in a match-betting scandal that rocked the Italian game. The striker, who was playing for Perugia, was one of several players accused of fixing a 2-2 draw with Avellino. Rossi was banned for three years although it was reduced to two on appeal.
The ban was lifted just two months before the 1982 World Cup. Nobody in Italy expected Enzo Bearzot, the Italian Coach, to select Rossi who surely lacked match fitness. But the pipe-smoking Bearzot, remembering Rossi’s wonderful contribution to Italy’s excellent ‘78 campaign, gambled on the striker who had signed for Juventus just before the ban was imposed.
“I knew that if Rossi wasn’t in Spain,” explained Bearzot, “I wouldn’t have had an opportunist inside the penalty box. In that area he was really good, really fast, always ready to run by using feints. In attack it is necessary to have a fast striker. He doesn’t have to be tall but he must be quick to exploit the counter-attack.”
At first it seemed Bearzot had made a terrible mistake. Rossi failed to score in Italy’s opener against Poland (0-0). In the second match against Peru (1-1) he was substituted early in the second half after a dreadful first 45 minutes. And he again fired blanks in the third match against Cameroon (1-1). The Azzurri scraped into the second phase on goal difference. By now the hysterical Italian Press were calling for Rossi’s exclusion and Bearzot’s head.
To reach the last four Italy had to play holders Argentina and favourites Brazil. Against Argentina, Rossi failed to break his scoring duck, but he had a good game and Italy won 2-1. So against Brazil, who had beaten their South American rivals 3-1, the Azzurri had to win to make the semi-finals. Brazil needed only a draw.
This was the match in which ‘Pablito’ – his nickname following the 1978 World Cup in Argentina – exploded into life. In one of the greatest games of all time Rossi hit a sensational hat-trick that dumped the brilliant Brazilians out of the tournament. First he headed Italy ahead after five minutes. Brazil equalised. Then he capitalised on a Brazilian mistake and blasted Italy into a 2-1 lead. Brazil again equalised, but they had no response to his third goal 15 minutes from time.
Not surprisingly, he chose his first goal against Brazil as one of the most important he has ever scored. “It freed me psychologically and also increased my motivation,” he said. “Like all strikers, once you get a goal you want more as soon as possible.”
In the semi-final, against Poland, Rossi scored both goals in a 2-0 win. In the Final Rossi, almost inevitably, grabbed the first goal in a memorable 3-1 win. Later that year he was named European Footballer of the Year – after a lot of Italian journalists were made to eat humble pie.
Rossi learnt his trade at Juventus but even before he celebrated his 18th birthday his football career was in jeopardy after he had cartilages from both knees removed. He was loaned to Como and it was with the Lombardy minnows that he made his Serie A debut in November 1975.
Then Juventus sold a half-share in Rossi to Serie B club Vicenza and it was there he made his name. In his first season with the Biancorossi, in 1976-77, his 21 goals helped Vicenza win promotion to Serie A. The following season Rossi and Vicenza proved to be the revelations of Serie A. Rossi was capocannoniere with 24 goals. Newly-promoted Vicenza, coached by Gian Battista Fabbri, finished second to Juventus.
That season Rossi won his first cap for Italy in a 1-0 victory over Belgium in Liege while Vicenza bought out Juve’s share in Rossi for a then-staggering £1.75m, a deal that nearly ruined the club. After a slightly disappointing 1979-80 season, Rossi scored 15 goals. They were not enough to stop Vicenza falling into Serie B and he was loaned to Perugia. There, apart from finding himself embroiled in a match-rigging scandal, he netted 13 goals in 28 games.
Before his two-year ban was announced Juventus bought Rossi for a cut-price £600,000 from Vicenza. It was a shrewd business move. Not only did they make £1.15m profit, but after the 1982 World Cup the Bianconeri owned one of the hottest properties in world football.
In Turin ‘Pablito’ won more trophies – the Coppa Italia in 1983, Lo Scudetto and the Cup-Winners Cup in 1984 and the European Cup in 1985. By now Rossi, wearing the red and black of Milan, was a shadow of the player of 1982. He had scored only two goals for Milan in the 1985-86 season and his inclusion in the 1986 World Cup squad was more for morale than form. After he returned from Mexico he was transferred to Verona. Rossi was still only 29 but this was to be his last port of call. Injuries had returned to plague him, just as they did when he was a teenager.
He kicked his last ball in April 1987 in Verona’s 3-0 win over Diego Maradona’s Napoli. It was a fitting end for Rossi since Napoli would win the title that season.