Paolo Rossi, the Italian striker with the looks of a matinee idol and the architect of their 1982 World Cup triumph, died on Thursday, aged only 64. The world, even the country, came to know about his death after his wife posted a picture of them together on Instagram with the under-script: Per Sempre, or ‘forever’ in English.
It was an intimate but strange way of announcing the departure of a legendary footballer, but one that aptly, if inadvertently, summed up a strange career and a stranger legacy.
Vale Paolo Rossi 🙌 1956-2020
🏆 1982 World Cup champion
🥇 1982 WC Golden Ball
🥇 1982 WC Golden Boot
🥇 1982 Ballon d’Or
Italian legend 🇮🇹 pic.twitter.com/mrgRh0Fdwj
— Goal (@goal) December 10, 2020
Rossi never became the immortal he was touted to become at the start of his career — he was barely into his 20s when Juventus acquired him for a then world-record fee — yet he delivered the most immortal of Italy’s World Cup moments. Rossi was a hero, yet not celebrated like one, if not a largely forgotten figure outside his own country. Rossi would not enter debates on GOATs, his slot in Italy’s All Time XI is uncertain, yet his name springs up when one talks about World Cup heroes. Rossi never became the goal-scoring beast his talents or instincts had telegraphed — he netted 138 in 334 games for various clubs and 20 in 48 for his country — but he was blessed with an immaculate sense of occasion. “A man who turned into a beast in big games,” as his contemporary and friend Dino Zoff put it.
The perfect example was the 1982 World Cup in Spain, undoubtedly Rossi’s pinnacle. Implicated in a betting scandal in 1980 and suspended for three years by the Italian Football Federation, even though he was not found guilty by Italian courts and he strongly insisted he was innocent, the striker seemed utterly rusty in his first four games of the World Cup. Coach Enzo Bearzot had to dodge difficult questions from the media, more so in the backdrop of the national federation truncating his ban to address Italy’s shortage of goals. “Bringing him straight into the World Cup was a gamble, but in the two years he was out, I could find no one to replace him,” Bearzot was forced to admit.
Rossi, too, was hounded by the media, and to them, he would repeatedly say: “You cannot expect me to be the saviour of Italian football. Only a player like Pele would be capable of transforming a whole team. And I’m not Pele.”
Yet, against Pele’s gilded successors, he netted a hat-trick that was to define his own career as well as redeem the footballing stature of his nation. Those were difficult times for Italian football, when the mafioso were allegedly running Italian football, when allegations of fixing and throwing away matches were routine, when their footballing concepts were considered turgid and outdated, and when Italy was slowly drifting out of football’s royalty.
Some of the typecasting was, well, mere typecasting. For instance, Bearzot’s team were not catenaccio merchants. Rather, il gioco all’Italiana, a more progressive version of the catenaccio, was marked by interchanging roles and fluid movements.
But they desperately needed a hero. And Rossi it was on that evening at Estadi de Sarrià in Barcelona. Years later, he would call that match a dream, but that ended too soon. “On one hand I felt fulfilled. I said to myself, ‘you’ve made it’. On the other hand, I was disappointed that all of this just ended,” he said in an interview to the FIFA website.
Few gave Italy a speck of chance to upend the romantics’ favourite, Brazil. Fewer still, foresaw Rossi scoring three goals in the way he did. Only Brazilian ’keeper Waldir Peres had a sense of foreboding. A day before the game, he told the press that he feared Rossi choosing the particular match to “spring back.”
The triple strike not only defined Rossi’s career but also described his best skills. Not the tallest or strongest forwards around, barely five-foot-nine and weighing 65 kg, his game revolved around anticipation and clever off-the-ball movements. He would stealthily drift into space and pounce on an opportunity with a hunter’s relish. The first of those goals was a pinpoint header, the second was a powerful hook past Peres, making the best use of a sloppy pass from Brazil’s Cerezo. The third was more like what his 1990s successor Filippo Inzaghi is famous for, poking in from three yards.
When Paolo Rossi made Brazil cry 💔
This is the game that made me fall in love with football as a kid, the best game in World Cup history
Trying to mimic Rossi’s hat-trick, Falcao’s dummy, Zico’s Cruyff Turn
Losing Diego & Rossi in 2 weeks. Just 64, too young
R.I.P Pablito 🙏 pic.twitter.com/Cu8MVJeAXo
— Carlo Garganese (@carlogarganese) December 10, 2020
Yet, Rossi was not the conventional No 9. Neither a 10 nor a 9. By definition, he was a right-winger but given a free-roaming role in the national side. With Juventus and AC Milan, he did what’s in modern football called the Firmino role — drawing defenders onto him and creating space for his fellow forwards. Bearzot would often joke: “Only Rossi knew where Rossi plays. And only Rossi knows when he plays.” The latter statement was a dig at his inconsistency post-suspension.
Maybe, those unfashionable skills and reputation stood in the way of him achieving a cult following even in Italy. He didn’t have the silk of Roberto Baggio, the trickery of Alessandro del Piero, or the vision of Francesco Totti. Yet, no other Italian forward had won them a World Cup as single-handedly as Rossi has — beating Zico’s Brazil, Maradona’s Argentina, Zbigniew Boniek’s Poland, and in the final, the West Germany of Karl-Heinz Rummenigge. The hat-trick was followed by a brace against Poland in the semifinals and the opening goal against West Germany in the final. Rossi won the Golden Boot, and later that year the Ballon d’Or.
Italy’s World Cup glory changed football in more ways than one. The country soon became the tactical and commercial hub of European football, attracting the best from the world and generating new-age thinking. And for a good part of nearly three decades, culminating in the 2006 World Cup win, Italy continued to be an unmissable force.
In all these years, though, Rossi slipped out of the public domain and sequestered into a personal labyrinth, occasionally stepping out for television punditry, before in his hour of departure, he united the nation in grief and rolled their minds back to the 1982 World Cup. He might have never achieved footballing immortality, but he did give Italy immortal moments, those that would live forever.