Paulo Rossi, Italy’s World Cup talisman in 1982, has passed away aged 64 after suffering from a long-term illness.
Certain World Cups are synonymous with one player who rose above the rest (Pele in 1970, Kempes in ’78, Maradona in ’86) and Rossi is one such legend.
Rossi scored 20 goals in 48 appearances for Italy, and more than 100 Serie A goals during spells with Vicenza, Perugia, Juventus, Milan and Verona. As well as winning the World Cup in 1982 (and Golden Boot & Ball), he was also awarded the Ballon d’Or that year. After retiring from football in 1987, he worked as a pundit for Sky, Mediaset and Rai.
In the eyes of many Brazilians, Rossi is something of a beloved villain. He is the player who stopped Brazil winning a World Cup with arguably the most beautiful team ever assembled – Zico, Socrates, Eder et al. Brazil had scorched through the opening group phase, playing godlike football, and were expected to go on and win the tournament, until they ran into Rossi in the form of his life; Italy beat Brazil 3-2 in the second group stage thanks to Rossi’s hat-trick (you should read Jonathan Wilson’s forensic account of the game, by the way). Exit Brazil, the greatest team never to win the World Cup. To say the South American country is still in mourning for that side’s failure is hardly an exaggeration.
Rossi’s hat-trick came out of the blue. He entered the World Cup with almost no match fitness after being implicated in a match-fixing scandal and suspended for three years (reduced to two on appeal, so he was available for Italy in 1982). He was unconvincing in Italy’s three group matches, failing to score as his country scraped through with three draws. A 2-1 win against Argentina put ideas into Italian heads and the rest is history. After knocking out Brazil, Italy were destined to win it. They beat Poland 2-0 in the semi-finals and West Germany 3-1 in the final. Rossi scored the opening goal in the final to cement his status as a World Cup legend and also satisfy the football gods – literally no one outside of Germany wanted the Germans to win after Harald Schumacher’s hatchet job on Patrick Battiston in their semi-final against France.
Today, Italians will remember that glorious summer in Spain, and the man who emerged from darkness into the light. RIP Paolo.