Paolo Rossi scored more than 150 goals in his career but if you wanted to understand the brilliance of a player whose death at the age of 64 sent Italy into mourning on Thursday, it may be enough to watch the one he grabbed in the 1982 World Cup final.
Or, more realistically, perhaps a slow-motion replay. The Italy striker does not appear to have position on his West Germany opponent Karlheinz Förster as Claudio Gentile prepares to send in a cross from the right. Only with repeat viewings does it become clear Rossi has started his run a frame or two sooner, building velocity, anticipating the delivery before it has even been dispatched. He beats Förster, and his own team-mate Antonio Cabrini, to the ball by a fraction, heading in from close range.
“That goal, more than any other goal that I scored, had the distinctive feel of being my kind of goal: a goal that reflected my characteristics,” remembered Rossi in the 2018 documentary One To Eleven. “It was mine, because I stole that 10th of a second from the defender. I went before he did and I knew he would not be able to catch me.”
Few could. Rossi was rarely the fastest player, yet somehow he was usually the quickest: stepping away from his marker before they even noticed he was gone. Fulvio Collovati, a teammate in that 1982 World Cup side, but a rival in Serie A for many years, described him as “pure phosphorus”.
Only in his final journey did he go too soon. Giovanni Trappatoni, who managed Rossi for four seasons at Juventus, expressed a grief many were feeling when he wrote on Twitter: “Players are not supposed to leave before their managers.” Tributes poured in from across Italy, as well as further afield. Teammates remembered his lightness of being, the ability to keep smiling even when results were tough and training camps dragged on. Coaches recalled his work ethic. Even the opponents whose dreams he shattered had fond recollections of his good-natured demeanour and politeness on the pitch.
Rossi burst on to the scene at Lanerossi Vicenza in the mid-1970s, firing the club back into the top flight and piling up 39 goals in his first two Serie A seasons. He would move on to Perugia, on loan, and then Juventus – where he won Serie A twice, as well as the European Cup and Cup Winners’ Cup once each. He finished his career at Milan and Verona but most of all he will always be remembered as the man who fired Italy to World Cup glory in 1982.
In the space of a week, he scored a hat-trick to eliminate the favourites Brazil, the only two goals of Italy’s semi-final against Poland and then that opener against West Germany, paving the way for a 3-1 triumph. Rossi walked off with the Golden Boot and the Golden Ball – recognised as the tournament’s best player as well as its most prolific. At the end of the year, he became the third Italian to win the Ballon d’Or.
It would have been an extraordinary achievement for any footballer. In Rossi’s case it scarcely seemed plausible. He had returned only weeks before from a two-year suspension, playing a total of three Serie A games before joining up with the World Cup squad.
He had, in his own account, lost five kilos owing to stress. Not that anyone needed a set of scales to see that he looked underweight. The journalist Gianni Brera described him as “an ectoplasm of himself”.
Italy’s team chef started bringing a glass of milk and a brioche up to his room every evening at 10.30 in an attempt to fatten him up.
Beyond the physical aspect, Rossi had mental hurdles to overcome. He had been banned after being accused of helping to fix a match between Perugia and Avellino – a charge he furiously denied.
Rossi would always maintain he had been dragged into a scandal that was nothing to do with him – his only mistake was to allow himself to be introduced by a teammate, Mauro Della Martira, to two strangers one day at Perugia’s training facility.
When they started talking to Rossi about how a draw could be a good outcome – perhaps even with him scoring a couple of goals – he believed they were talking in general terms rather than about an actual fix.
In any case, he said he made his excuses and left as quickly as possible without agreeing to anything. The game, though, did end up in a draw, with Rossi grabbing two goals. When prosecutors began to unravel the extensive match-fixing efforts of a pair of individuals – Massimo Cruciani and Alvaro Trinca – the striker’s name was put to them by the accused.
Rossi would later describe a period of dissociation from the events going on around him, saying “it was as if it were happening to somebody else”.
Even after the initial judgments were handed down, he remained convinced there had been a mistake and that he would be absolved on appeal. Instead, Rossi got only a reduction in the length of his ban – from three years to two.
He thought about leaving football altogether but was persuaded to carry on after receiving an offer from Juventus to sign and train with their first team through the second year of his ban. The president, Giampiero Boniperti, told him on his first day of pre-season training to get married as it would help life to settle down. Rossi and his then partner, Simonetta Rizzato, were hitched by the end of September.
Juventus were not the only ones to show faith in him. The Italy manager, Enzo Bearzot, had called on him at the 1978 World Cup and stayed in touch throughout Rossi’s suspension, letting him know he would still be in consideration. Once the tournament got under way in Spain, Bearzot never wavered in his support for Rossi, even as the player laboured badly at first.
That faith was richly rewarded. When the whistle blew to confirm Italy’s victory over West Germany, Rossi experienced a wave of simultaneous joy and dismay. Elation at what he and his teammates had achieved collided painfully with a sadness that this World Cup journey was at an end.
“It makes you think about what happiness is and isn’t. It’s a moment, a second, a 10th of a second. Then it’s gone.” For Rossi, the high lasted only as long as it would for him to lose a defender. The memory of a World Cup that he defined, though, will endure for many more years yet.