Legend of paolo Rossi: Permanent yet fleeting
"Paolo Rossi was the one who beat Zico's Brazil, Maradona's Argentina, Boniek's Poland and in the final, the Germany of Rummenigge," the Gazzetta dello Sport, Italy's top sports newspaper, wrote in its online column on Thursday following the Tuscan legend's death at the age of 64.
Not a bit of exaggeration in those words. During the two weeks of June-July of '82, Rossi had ripped to shreds the formbook, his own and that of the teams involved,and single-handedly carried a struggling Italy side to their first world title in modern times. And he did it with an outrageous sequence of six goals in the final three matches, ushering in enormous joy to a nation which was beset with political and social unrest over the previous decade.
The tournament in 1982 was also part of the early days of World Cup matches being telecast live around the globe, and 25-year-old Rossi, with his matinee-idol looks and jet-black hair in that classic blue Azzurri kit, gliding away in celebration after each of those six goals, had caught the imagination of an entire generation and made them fall in love with the beauty of football.
None of those goals were extraordinary. A downward header from inside six yards, a tap-in from close range or side-footing past the goalie from inside the box, but that was the eternal Paolo Rossi -- the predator of the box, the one for losing his marker at will and being present at the right place at the right time. What was extraordinary, though, was how those goals transformed a struggling team into the world's best and how they turned Rossi from an outcast to the darling of a nation, and under what circumstances!
It was a case of "personal redemption" for the Juventus forward.
Having missed the 1980 European Championship due to a ban from football on allegation of involvement in a betting scandal, Rossi, once the world's highest-paid player, saw his three-year ban commuted to two years, just in time for him to be considered for the touring party.
He hadn't scored for Italy in almost 15 hours of action and had only played three games in three years, yet coach Enzo Bearzot, who was the coach in Argentina '78 too when Rossi scored three goals and made four assists, ignored the media's hullabaloo for dropping him.
The winger-turned-centre-forward looked lethargic in the three pool matches as Italy limped through the first group stage. He was even called an "ectoplasm of himself", and a "ghost aimlessly wandering over the field", but Bearzot kept his faith. The faith was to be repaid in the grandest of ways, starting with the "execution of Brazil".
That Brazil team played with careless abandon, and why not, when they had the likes of Zico, Socrates and Alemao in their ranks. The team's coach Tele Santana was a proponent of Jogo Bonito, but in his vision of beautiful footballhe had clearly lost sight of the danger lurking in the shape of Rossi.
That "ghost aimlessly wandering" suddenly sprang to life at the Estadi de Sarria in Barcelona and executed one of the greatest Brazil sides of all time in one of the greatest ever matches in the history of the World Cup.
Two more goals against Poland in the semifinals and the opening goal against West Germany in the final washed the pain and stigmafrom injuries and the betting scandal, which had dogged Rossi for years.
Those performances earned Rossi the Ballon d'Or award that year and he still remains the only player to win the World Cup, finish the top-scorer and be voted best player in the tournament, and in the world, all at the same time.
That was the pinnacle of a brief-yet-eventful career which had all the ingredients of a thrilling and loveable blockbuster movie, but Rossi the person, the elegant, languid and humane footballer, never tried to use his fame to live in the limelight.
He faded away from the collective memory as one of the more technically gifted players, the ones more pleasing to have occupied that place. Rossi was comfortable in his zone though, albeit with a bit of nostalgia hanging over from those two weeks in Spain.
Years later Rossi recalled the tournament and the final against Germany as a dream, a dream that ended too soon.
"When the game ended, I recall two clear and distinct feelings. 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," Rossi said in an interview with FIFA. "It makes you think about what happiness is or perhaps what it isn't. Happiness is a fraction of it. And then it's gone."
Like happiness, Rossi is gone too, perhaps sooner than he should have been, but the moments he gave to the world of football will never be forgotten.