Paolo Rossi: an incredible career of intoxicating peaks and controversial troughs

Paolo Rossi: an incredible career of intoxicating peaks and controversial troughs

The very mention of Paolo Rossi can conjure to mind just one image, and this is entirely understandable. It’s July 1982 in Barcelona at the Estadi de Sarrià. Wearing the Azzurri number 20 on his back, Rossi springs to life and plunders a hat-trick of iconic proportions against one of the most celebrated and romanticised teams the World Cup has ever known.

Even the goals he scored in the semi-final and final of the 1982 World Cup are blinded by the glare of his performance and goals against Brazil. Once you sit there for a while, blinking into the ether, groping for further thoughts of Rossi beyond the bright and vivid summer of 1982 on the Iberian Peninsula, the black and white stripes of Juventus begin to appear through the misty watercolour memories of Spain. Totonero will also perhaps start to prick the consciousness, if you know your Italian football history well enough.

Any other image of Rossi almost feels like a betrayal of his finest moments in the azure blue of Italy or the black and white of Juventus, yet the very making of Rossi was instead undertaken at Vicenza and Perugia.

On a professional footing, Juventus was where it all kicked-off for Rossi, however, and it was very much against the wishes of his parents, having seen their older son taken on by i Bianconeri, only to be shown to the exit within a year.

The promise shown by Rossi at youth levels for Saint Lucia, Ambrosiana and Cattolica Virtus brought a persuasive Juventus to the family door again, and they would not take no for an answer, despite Rossi’s mother being defiantly against the move and his father even bringing in a Catholic community leader to dissuade Juventus in the pursuit of their son.

Two years later, after a series of injuries and operations, Rossi made his Juventus debut in a Coppa Italia tie away to Cesena, playing two further domestic cup games during the 1974/75 season. Playing as a right-winger, these accomplished – though perhaps not outstanding displays – meant that he followed in the footsteps of his brother by realising his parent’s fears and seeing his Juventus dreams ended prematurely.

During those formative games, Rossi took to the field with the likes of Dino Zoff, Claudio Gentile and Franco Causio, players with whom he would win the World Cup and, in the cases of Zoff and Gentile, eventually be reunited with in the Juventus team once again.

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In the summer of 1975, Rossi was sent on a season-long loan by Juventus to fellow Serie A club Como. Restricted to just six games, it wasn’t the stepping stone to greatness in Turin that either the player or the club had hoped it would be. Como were relegated. The pivotal season for Rossi was upon the horizon, however, as Juve’s powers of persuasion coaxed Vicenza of Serie B to enter a co-ownership of the player. It was at the Stadio Romeo Menti, under the leadership of Giovan Fabbri, that Rossi blossomed.

Moved from the wing to a central striking role, Rossi exploded with a cascade of goals that took his new team and the division by storm. Fabbri, having himself arrived at the club during the summer, proved as much a revelation as his chief goalscorer. Just a year after flirting with relegation to Serie C, Vicenza clinched a closely contested Serie B title race, ironically with a final day victory away to Como, where Rossi had largely stagnated the previous season.

Fabbri was effectively a father figure to Rossi. Not only that, his very ethos of the game was perfectly suited to that of a coach who preached team unity and a requirement for every player to be able to play the ball, not simply the space. Defenders were expected to be as comfortable in possession as the midfielders and forwards were.

Juventus monitored these new developments with interest as Rossi scored 21 goals in Vicenza’s promotion-winning campaign. In identifying Rossi’s greater suitability to a central attacking role, Fabbri displayed the deft touch of an under-heralded coaching genius. The question now was whether Rossi could transfer his Serie B exploits onto the Serie A stage?

The answer was a resounding yes.

In a 30-game Serie A campaign, Rossi found the back of the net 24 times, making him the league’s top scorer by the clear margin of eight goals from Napoli’s Giuseppe Savoldi. It represented an eye-watering number in the defensively stifling environment of Serie A. Even more impressive was that Vicenza finished the season as runners-up for the Scudetto to Juventus, finishing ahead of Torino, the two Milan giants and Napoli.

This avalanche of goals took Rossi all the way to the 1978 World Cup finals, where he was entrusted by Enzo Bearzot to lead the line despite having played just twice for Gli Azzurri. Scoring three times in Argentina – against France, Hungary and Austria – Rossi could count himself unlucky not to lead Italy all the way to the final, losing out in the de-facto semi-final against the Netherlands. Having already beaten Argentina in the group stages, it is not unreasonable to suggest that Italy’s 1982 success would have been more deserved had it happened four years earlier.

Into the new campaign, the 1978/79 season was the polar opposite of the previous one for Vicenza. Disappointingly knocked out of the UEFA Cup at the first hurdle, the club appeared to be comfortable as spring approached. A 4-1 dismantling of Lazio in early-March was symptomatic of an upturn in fortunes that had included a victory away at Juventus in which Rossi had scored the winning goal.

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Vicenza contrived to win none of their remaining 10 Serie A fixtures, however, and they slipped to a surprise relegation after a final day defeat to Atalanta. Rossi had still claimed 15 goals for the season and had continued to prosper on the international stage, where he scored in high-profile friendlies against Spain, the Netherlands, Argentina and Yugoslavia, cultivating a similar relationship with Bearzot to the one he enjoyed with Fabbri, as Italy prepared to host Euro 1980.

Happy at Vicenza but conscious that he had to remain in Serie A, Napoli made a concerted effort to sign him. Turning down the lucrative move, it was instead to Perugia that Rossi went on a two-year loan deal. Perhaps mindful of the pressure his parents were put under in allowing him to join Juventus as a 16-year old, the striker put his personal needs ahead of his professional requirements.

Perugia had been as much of an oddity in calcio as Vicenza had, and when they finished second to AC Milan during the 1978/79 Serie A season, they did so by remaining unbeaten – denied the title by virtue of drawing 19 of their 30 games. The opportunism of Perugia in securing the services of Rossi was audacious to say the least.

To offset part of the cost of funding the presence of their prized asset, they became one of the first Italian clubs to enter into a shirt sponsorship deal, cunningly adopting a corporate logo as their badge so as to slip through a loophole in what were otherwise stringent rules on shirt sponsors.

Hopes that Rossi could inspire Perugia to go one step further and win the Scudetto were short-lived, and while he continued to score freely in Umbria, the club laboured to a ninth-placed finish. The window of opportunity for glory was slammed shut in the most dramatic fashion.

Despite his spectacular return to football in 1982, Totonero did immeasurable damage to Rossi’s career. Led by a friend into an awkward conversation with two strangers about the outcome of an upcoming game against Avellino, Rossi still protests his innocence to this day. At worst, he sold out for a temporary financial benefit, while at best he was naive beyond comprehension.

Ambiguity still reigns on the topic and it is an uneasy truth that the game in question did indeed end the way it was suggested it should to Rossi in that embarrassing conversation. While the on-pitch numbers added up to a guilty charge, however, the anger of Rossi at his fate was white-hot and he considered leaving football and Italy itself. He vowed never to play for the national team again and every suspicious glance which came his way created an open wound. He would wake up on a Sunday morning devoid of happiness: there would be no game of football for him to take part in.

The scandal cost Rossi two years of his career and a place in the Italy squad for Euro 1980. Meanwhile, Perugia were deducted five points for the 1980/81 season and, combined with no Rossi, were relegated at the end of the campaign.

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With the reduction of his ban from three to two years came a light at the end of the tunnel. With Bearzot in his corner, the 1982 World Cup became a possibility for Rossi. Internazionale had made an approach for his services and he was amenable to the idea to the point that it appeared a done-deal, only for him to back away at the last minute, just as he had when Napoli tried to sign him.

Instead, Juventus returned for him, offering sanctuary, a place to train, a place to reclaim full-fitness and a home to submerge himself within football once again. His ban ended in April 1982 and he made his belated league debut for i Bianconeri away to Udinese. Rossi scored in a 5-1 victory as a controversial Scudetto was wrapped up on the final day at Catanzaro, a day which gave birth to Fiorentina’s ball of hatred towards the black and white stripes.

This was, of course, followed by Rossi’s greatest years. A World Cup win of operatic quality; a resurrection that took him to the 1982 Ballon d’Or; a part in perhaps Juventus’ most star-studded side; another Serie A title and three successive major European finals between 1983 and 1985.

Through it all, though, Rossi seemed to be missing an extra gear of old. During the 1984/85 season, he scored only three goals in Serie A. At the age of 28, he should have been at the peak of his powers. By the summer of 1985, however, Juventus called time on his second spell in Turin.

Just like the images of Rossi at Vicenza and Perugia, another visage that might slip under your radar is that of Rossi in the famed red and black of AC Milan. It is a peculiar sight and one which feels vaguely uncomfortable, in a similar way to how Franz Beckenbauer looks at odds with himself in the colours of Hamburg or Johan Cruyff looks massively out of place in a Feyenoord kit.

In the case of Rossi, it is further compounded by how, during his only season at the San Siro, i Rossoneri sported the slenderer red and black stripe, that they periodically revert to. To me at least, they feel much more like a Milan of substance when the stripes are wider.

Rossi was restricted to just three goals during the 1985/86 season, one of those coming in the Coppa Italia. The two Serie A goals he did net were iconic, however, and they came in the same match – the Milan derby – a game in which Rossi displayed everything that was hypnotic about his goal-scoring artistry. He temporarily felt like a man reborn, a predatory mirage that appeared but all too quickly vanished once more.

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That addictive high of scoring a goal in a high-profile game was electrifying to Rossi. The second goal against Inter that day was an 89th-minute equaliser and it was enough to win him the eternal respect of the Milan faithful as it came during an era when i Rossoneri were still upon the eve of renewed greatness. The glories of the mid-1980s were relatively small and hard earned, but mightily celebrated.

Despite enduring a difficult season in Milan, the memories of Rossi’s exploits in Spain four years earlier won him a ticket from Bearzot to the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. Along with Marco Tardelli, Rossi’s call-up made little in the way of common-sense. Both were pale shadows of the players they had been and Bearzot was essentially pinning his hopes on temporarily reversing the laws of footballing gravity.

The manager’s plans failed. Neither Rossi or Tardelli played a single minute between them in Mexico. Roberto Pruzzo, the Serie A top scorer that season, watched the World Cup from afar having been inexplicably left out of Bearzot’s planning for – and poorly judged execution of – Italy’s defence of their title.

A year later, after a final fling with Verona, Rossi called time on a career which had encompassed a series of highly pronounced peaks and troughs. Milan had sent him to the Veneto region in order to facilitate the arrival of Giuseppe Galderisi, the man who stepped in for Rossi at the 1986 World Cup. Helping Verona to a fourth-place finish and linking well with Preben Elkjær, Rossi’s career was over before his 31st birthday.

It seems odd to be speaking of an unfulfilled talent when talking of a man who won the World Cup and lifted the Golden Boot during that very campaign. Still to this day, nobody has scored more World Cup finals goals for Gli Azzurri than Rossi, matched only by Roberto Baggio and Christian Vieri. Rossi won Serie A titles, the European Cup and the Cup Winners’ Cup, and the Ballon d’Or, but his career was heavily interrupted by scandal and injury.

Beyond his return to football after his Totonero ban, Rossi hit double-figures in a Serie A campaign only once. Through the patience shown by Juventus, the over-extended nature of his international career, the faith shown in him by Milan and the final turn of the card afforded to him by Verona, there was an overall feeling that they all waited with baited breath for the Rossi of Spain 82 to return once more. Sadly, he never really did and at times he was almost a luxury passenger for the teams he represented.

Rossi’s burst of goals at the 1982 World Cup were an eye-of-the-storm riposte to the authorities who detached him from the game of football for two years, and to those who doubted his ability to be the focal point in Italy’s challenge for World Cup glory. Within his six-goal World Cup-winning redemption, it could be suggested that Rossi blew so hard that it almost took the wind out of the sails of the remainder of his career.

By Steven Scragg @Scraggy_74

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