Paolo Rossi, the battle-hardened WC hero

In modern football, no player of international class barring Diego Maradona has seen as many ups and downs as Rossi.

Italian forward Paolo Rossi celebrates after scoring the first goal for his team during the World Cup semifinal soccer match against Poland in 1982.   -  AFP

The handsome young Italian sat alone in his hotel room in Barcelona on a warm July night in 1982. The whole world was chanting his name, but the Italian seemed to have shut out the world as he sat seemingly brooding, in the darkness of his suite. Such detachment, on a night
when the world was at his feet, belonged to the prophets of the Himalayas and one would hardly expect the greatest soccer star of the day to meditate in solitary splendour just a few hours after he had won for Italy the World Cup.

But Paolo Rossi has been through too much to take anything too seriously, to be too carried away by his own transcendent scoring brilliance in the 1982 World Cup finals, to be over-excited about his new seat of power and fame as the new king of the game.

In modern football, no player of international class barring Diego Maradona has seen as many ups and downs as Rossi. The Italian centre-forward has perhaps seen more highs and lows than a hotel escalator. In the event, that July night was just another high to him, although it was the
highest of highs for any footballer and in the context of the dramatic series of end games of the 1982 World Cup, the most sensational sequence of successes in the history of the competition that can be put down to the genius of one man.

Rossi had looked a parody of the mercurial young player of the 1978 Argentine World Cup through the first phase of Mundial'82 when Italy had been so cravenly defensive and looked as far away from being world champion as any team can be.

 

The transformation came in that unforgettable game against the tournament favourites, the Brazilians. In that match Rossi ignored all pre-match speculations and tore to shreds the World Cup form-book with a magnificent hat-trick that sent the Brazilians tumbling out of the competition.

Rossi's dream run continued through the semifinal against Poland and the final against the West Germans, heading to a logical climax. He had scored six goals in the last three matches, goals without which Italy could have scarcely matched Brazil as a three-time World Cup winner. For Italy he was much the knight in shining armour and honours came pouring in as the Italian President, Mr.Sandro Pertini announced that he would confer on Rossi the civic title of Commendatore, the equivalent to a knighthood.

Public memory is shorter in time than the life of a single World Cup Finals and when the whole world exulted in the afterglow of the knight-like deeds of Rossi, the protagonist of the glorious Italian resurgence was himself pressing the rewind button on the memory file to switch back from the night sequences to the nightmarish events of the past as he sat alone in his hotel room after the Finals.

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And the picture that must have emerged, of himself, to Rossi must have been that of a battered, humiliated man battling with himself to end a traumatic period of anguish and self-doubt only weeks before the World Cup Finals.

After his two-year suspension from the game, following the fixed odds betting scandal of 1980, Rossi had been so unsure of himself. He was back with Juventus but could play only three league games and a few internationals before the World Cup. It did not surprise too many that Rossi looked jaded and unexciting in those games just as he would be uninspiring and ineffectual in the first phase of the World Cup games in Galicia.

What is more, the Italian coach Enzo Bearzot even substituted Rossi once in the early part of the championship. But to his eternal credit, the great coach never quite lost faith in the ability of Rossi to rise to the occasion.

When the Italian gutter press pilloried Rossi and criticised Bearzot for persisting with the little centre-forward, the coach and the player chose to ignore them. And it was no surprise then that Rossi and his wizened coach should have continued to ignore them when the Italian press was singing praises of the great star and the intelligent coach.

Rossi was born on September 23, 1956, the son of a dedicated soccer player and a loyal fan of Florentina. He started playing for the local Catholic Virtue team, from which Juventus drew most of its players, in the textile city of Prato.

But once he went to Turin seeking to play in the Juventus first team, things went horribly wrong for the young man and his services were lent to Como before being transferred to Lanerossi Vicenza. It was during his spell with Vicenza that Rossi travelled to Argentina as a relative unknown in international soccer. There he made a name for himself with a dazzling display and flew back to Italy a national hero.

Then again, in Italian soccer, from hero to villain was just an overnight trek. And the handsome young man who confined himself to the darkness of his hotel room in 1982 when the world was aglow after a competition lit up by his genius, had, like Rudyard Kipling, all along known that success and disaster are birds of the same feather — both imposters.