July 5, 2008

Rossi's Rehab

Today's tale is a heartwarming story of a striker who was lost in the football wilderness but then found redemption on this day back in 1982. That he should do so on the stage of one of the greatest World Cup matches ever played adds to the legend. Enter Paolo Rossi.

He first came to the world's attention in 1978 during the World Cup in Argentina. Rossi's three goals in that tournament had helped an impressive Italian side to finish in fourth place. Having finished as top scorer in Serie A the previous season, he looked set to become one of the biggest stars in the history of the game.

Fall from grace

After his club, Vicenza, were relegated into the abyss of Serie B, Rossi was loaned out to Perugia. Whilst there he was implicated in the 'Totonero' match-fixing scandal, and was subsequently handed a two year playing ban.

So by the time of the 1982 World Cup, Rossi hadn't played a competitve match for two years. Yet amidst howls of derision from the media, the Italian manager Enzo Bearzot still picked Rossi for the squad. It would turn out to be an inspired choice, but behind the scenes the knives were being sharpened.

Unfortunately for Bearzot and Italy, the doom merchants appeared to be right. Italy's performance in their opening three matches was diabolical. Three draws against Poland, Peru and Cameroon saw them scrape through to the next phase, and Rossi was hopelessly out of sorts.


In the mini groups which constituted the second round, Italy faced Argentina and Brazil. After Argentina were beaten by both sides, the scene was set for a do-or die showdown between Italy and Brazil. Brazil just needed to draw, whereas Italy had to win to qualify for the semi-final.

The odds were stacked heavily against the Azzuri. The Brazil side which graced the 1982 tournament was one of the best ever, playing a brand of sublime attacking football rarely seen before or since. They were white hot favourites.

Now the time came for Rossi to awake from his stupor. Within five minutes he had given Italy the lead- a downward header from Cabrini's cross. Seven minutes later Socrates equalised after a beautiful turn from Zico, 1-1. Next Rossi pounced on a stray pass by Cerezo and made it 2-1. If he and his team mates could hold on they were through.

However when Falcao equalised in the 68th minute with a searing drive the advantage swung back to Brazil yet again.

Our hero was not finished yet. In the 74th minute, he latched on to a ball driven in from a corner and Italy were ahead again. This time it stayed that way, and Brazil had been dispatched by Rossi's hat-trick.

He went on to score twice in the semi-final against Poland, and grabbed another one against West Germany in the final, as the Azzuri were crowned champions in Madrid.

He finished as top scorer in the tournament, with six goals in three games. He had found his redemption. And Enzo Bearzot's canny decision to take Rossi to Spain was vindicated. He and his team had boycotted the Italian media in response to their relentlessly negative attitude.

I remember watching this game through the eyes of a child. Twenty six years later, it still saddens me that a wonderful yet fatally adventurous Brazilian side never got to win the World cup. A Spanish tragedy.

Yet even now, watching highlights of the game and Paolo Rossi's awe-inspiring performance reminds me of a comforting truth: the lost can always be found. Especially on July 5th 1982.


YouTube - brief highlights

Brazil's 1982 squad - a reminder of why they were so good

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