Paolo Rossi: Football’s “Assassin” and Italy’s Undying Hero

Paolo Rossi: Football’s “Assassin” and Italy’s Undying Hero

Summer 1982, Madrid: The world’s eyes were on the magical feet of a Brazilian called Zico. Much of that year’s pre-World Cup hype was also on a $10 million transfer fee (then a princely sum) for Boca Juniors superstar Diego Maradona, whom many expected to defend the title for incumbent champion Argentina. But in the end, the real star of ‘Espana ‘82’ was a lesser-known Paolo Rossi, who scored a total of six times to bury Brazil in the quarter-final and stop a determined West Germany in the final to help Italy carry the cup it won 44 years earlier.

It is little surprise then that Rossi’s death, of lung cancer at the age of 64, triggered an outpouring of grief among Italians, who regarded him one the country’s greatest sporting heroes and best attacking footballers of all time.

Paolo Rossi gets pass Brazil players at the 1982 World Cup (Action Images)

The 1982 World Cup win was a cathartic moment for Italy, which had been subject to significant social and political unrest for a number of years and, despite being regarded as one of the world’s premier footballing nations, had not triumphed in the campaign since its previous win 44 years earlier. 

A ‘Pablito’ Loved By All

With Espana 82 came an incalculable lift to the nation’s spirits. Rossi, known to millions of adoring Italians as “Pablito”, was at the centre of the celebrations.

Paolo Rossi lifts World Cup 1982 (Firstspost)

After Rossi’s death on Dec 9, 2020, Italian Football Federation president Gabriele Gravina said on the governing body’s official website: “The disappearance of Pablito is another deep pain, a wound to the heart of all fans, difficult to heal.”

“We lose a friend and an icon, who dragged the (1982 World Cup) national team to success with his goals, he took an entire country by the hand, which rejoiced in the streets, for him and with him.”

Rossi’s 1982 teammates — Marco Tardelli, Antonio Cabrini, Giancarlo Antognoni, Alessandro Altobelli, Franco Causio, Fulvio Collovati and Giuseppe Bergomi — were among his pallbearers. His funeral was broadcast live across Italy. Before the event , his coffin was placed at the Stadio Romeo Menti in Vicenza for supporters to lay flowers and pay respects.

“I have not only lost a teammate, but also a friend and a brother,” said Cabrini, who provided the cross for Rossi to score the opening goal against Brazil.

“Together we fought, we won and we sometimes lost, always picking ourselves up even in the face of disappointment. We were part of a group, that group, our group. I didn’t think he would leave so soon.”

The subsequent turnaround in Italy’s mood after the Spain victory in many ways mirrored Rossi’s own personal redemption: for a couple of years before the World Cup he had been mired in one of the biggest scandals in footballing history, banned for two years for his role in a match-fixing scheme that encompassed many of Italy’s biggest clubs. He had returned to the game only eight weeks before the showdown in Spain, and in the first three matches of the tournament, the rust had shown alarmingly. Yet, when it mattered most, he came through and delivered a tail-end performance that was nothing short of magnificent.

So much has been said about the ‘82 glory of Italy since Rossi’s death that his exploits in Spain deserve deeper telling.

Rossi’s arrival in Spain was rather low-key and he didn’t score in his first four games.

Then, in the fifth game, with Brazil, Italy’s new football icon was born.

Brazil had won all three of their first group stage matches, including comprehensive wins over Scotland (4–1), New Zealand (4–0) and Argentina (3-1). 

Maradona Red-Carded, Zico Wilted, Rossi Celebrated

The win against Argentina was particularly satisfying for Brazil: not only did they dispatch their greatest South American rival in style, but also had the savage pleasure of watching Maradona being red-carded for lunging his foot into the gut of Brazil’s João Battista. Ironically, Maradona, who’d die on Nov 25, 2020 — just two weeks before Rossi — would return to win for Argentina the very next World Cup in Mexico in 1986 and become a football god in more ways than one.

Read more on Diego Maradona.

Back to Brazil and 1982.  With names like Sócrates, Zico, Junior and Falcão  — some of the country’s greatest footballers since the heydays of Pele, Garrincha and Rivellino — it seemed like the Brazilians could just do no wrong. 

Enter Paolo Rossi.

Rossi opened the scoring when he headed in Antonio Cabrini’s cross with just five minutes played. Sócrates equalised for Brazil seven minutes later. 

Undeterred, in the twenty-fifth minute, Rossi stepped past Júnior, intercepted a pass from Cerezo across the Brazilians’ goal, and drilled the shot home. The Brazilians threw everything in search of another equalizer, while Italy defended bravely. On the 68th minute, Falcão collected a pass from Júnior and as Cerezo’s dummy run distracted three defenders, fired home from 20 yards out. 

Now Italy had gained the lead twice thanks to Rossi’s goals, and Brazil had come back twice. At 2–2, Brazil would have been through on goal difference.

But in the 74th minute, a poor clearance from an Italian corner kick went back to the Brazilian six-yard line where Rossi and Francesco Graziani were waiting. Both aimed at the same shot, Rossi connecting to get a hattrick and sending Italy into the lead for an unbelievable third time. 

Paolo Rossi celebrates with Giancarlo Antognoni after scoring for Italy in the 3-2 win against Brazil at the 1982 World Cup (CNN)

In the 86th minute, Giancarlo Antognoni scored what seemed a fourth goal for Italy, which was later deemed offside. In the dying moments, Dino Zoff, a goalkeeping legend as big as Rossi the striker, made a miraculous save of a shot from Brazil’s Oscar to ensure Italy advanced to the semi-final against Poland.

After Brazil Fell, Everywhere The Question Was: ‘Who Is Paolo Rossi?’

The soccer world went nuts. Who the hell was Paolo Rossi and where had been all the while, many demanded to know.

In fact, Rossi had played in the World Cup prior to Spain, in Buenos Aires in 1978, which Argentina won on homeground. He even scored four times in that tournament, though the goals weren’t as consequential as the ones he had against Brazil in ‘82. 

Rossi seemed surprised himself with his turnaround, saying in a FIFA interview that his transformation was absolute after the win over Brazil.

“Everything suddenly changed,” he said. “Nothing was going my way and then suddenly everything was going my way. It was suddenly all so easy. Such is the beauty of sport. A goal can change everything. In my case it changed my entire life.”

More than his goals, Rossi bedeviled opponents with his style. 

He was a master at stealing-in behind defenses, gaining a precious fraction of a second through his quick thinking, great ball control and balletic, darting movements into the danger area.  Although without great physical presence – he was rather slightly built and stood at 5ft 10in – he played the decisive striker.  A typical Rossi goal: a stooping header inside the six-yard box, where he operated so stealthily and effectively. To his rivals, Rossi was a grinning assassin who brought terror — and ultimately, their end — every time he crept near.

With his mojo returned to full working order after the quarter-final win over Brazil, Rossi scored both goals in a 2-0 win over Poland in the semi-finals and then gave Italy the lead after 57 minutes against West Germany as they won the final in Madrid.

His Mama Didn’t Want A Footballer

On his return to the domestic scene with Juventus after the 1982 World Cup, those skills helped him to win two Italian league titles and to pick up winners’ medals in the European Cup and European Cup Winners’ Cup. But his career was relatively short, and he retired at the age of 30 because of injury.

Born in Prato in Tuscany, Rossi had no problem persuading his father, Vittorio, a keen amateur footballer, that his young talent could take him into the professional game. But his mother, Amelia, was harder to convince, and it was only with her grudging approval that he signed for Juventus at 16 in 1972, initially as a winger. In Paolo’s early days his mother’s doubts seemed to be justified, as he was laid low by a series of injuries and appeared only rarely for the first team.

On loan to unfashionable second division Vicenza, he was switched to a central striking role, and there he was able to demonstrate his rare ability to ghost in behind defenses. He was top scorer for the club in the 1976-77 season as they gained promotion from Serie B to Serie A, and the following year he had the highest tally of any player in the top flight, scoring 24 as his side finished second.

The Match-Fixing Scandal That Almost Killed Rossi’s Career

That form won him selection for the 1978 World Cup finals in Argentina, in which he scored three goals – against France, Hungary and Austria – as Italy finished fourth. At that stage it looked as if his career was on a relentlessly upward trajectory, but more injuries followed and Vicenza were relegated in 1978-79 as Rossi spent much of the season in the treatment room. Forced to seek top-flight football with a move to Perugia, it was there that he became embroiled in the nationwide 1980 Totonero match-fixing scandal.

Rossi was arrested after it emerged that a 2-2 draw between Perugia and Avellino, in which he had scored both his side’s goals, had been fixed by a betting syndicate. Although he admitted having been approached to take a bribe, he said he had not taken up the offer. Nonetheless, after an official investigation into other widespread irregularities across the country, he was found guilty and given a three-year ban, later reduced to two on appeal. He was one of 20 players from 11 clubs to be suspended, with others receiving bans of between six months and six years.

During his exile, Rossi was allowed to train with Juventus, and it was with the Turin side that he returned, scoring one goal in three appearances at the end of the 1981-82 season as Juventus won Serie A. Clearly in poor shape, and with just two months to go until the World Cup finals in Spain, not many expected him to be fit enough, either physically or mentally, for inclusion in the tournament squad. But Italy’s manager, Enzo Bearzot, had no such doubts, and he was selected immediately.

More Glory After ‘Espana’; A Soccer Pundit In Retirement 

After the glory in Madrid, which won Rossi the 1982 Ballon d’Or as Europe’s best footballer, he secured further honours with Juventus, winning the Italian Cup in 1983, the European Cup Winners’ Cup and the Serie A title in 1984, and then the European Cup in 1985, in a 1-0 win against Liverpool that was irretrievably marred by the death of 39 fans in the Heysel stadium disaster.

Rossi with wife Federica Cappelletti (Instagram)

The next year Rossi transferred to Milan, but spent only a season there before moving to Hellas Verona. His injury problems had returned, and despite being picked by Italy in the 1986 World Cup finals squad, he was unable to play in any of the tournament games. He retired in 1987, having helped Hellas Verona to finish fourth in Serie A. For Italy he had scored 20 goals in 48 matches and for his various clubs just over 100 goals in 250 appearances.

In retirement Rossi moved into the world of property development, and owned and ran a vineyard near Arezzo in Tuscany. He also worked as a pundit for various television stations, including Sky, where he was admired for his down-to-earth presence.

His first marriage, to Simonetta Rizzato, ended in divorce. He is survived by his second wife, Federica Cappelletti, whom he married in 2010, their two daughters, Maria and Sofia, and a son, Alessandro, from his first marriage.

* Adapted from tributes by The Guardian, CNN  and BBC

* Banner image: ESPN


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