They had equalized for the 2nd time through Falcao, a goal that summed up the quality of the Brazilian side, which now had one foot across the line with just 16 minutes left to play. Tardelli tried to shoot a loose ball from a corner which was nothing but drifting wide until it met the Azzuri’s No. 20 who turned it into the Brazilian goal. Paolo Rossi. Italy’s prodigal son had returned. Their baby-faced assassin. They said butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth, or would it?
The Italians were reigning European champions. But in spite of that and having finished fourth in the ’78 world cup, Enzo Bearzot’s side rode to Espana ‘82 far from being the favourites. One of the surprise inclusions in that flight to Spain was Paolo Rossi who had just finished a 2-year ban from club and international football for allegedly being involved in a match-fixing scandal.
Rossi started his career with Juventus. His early years were plagued with injuries and he was shipped to Serie B side, Como, on loan without being handed any first team opportunity at La Vecchia Signora. A year later, he found himself at Vicenza. The Prato born poacher netted 21 times, earning his side promotion to the Italian Serie A. The following season, Rossi continued his fine goal scoring form, netting 24 times and became the first player to be ‘Capocannoniere’ in the top two divisions in two consecutive seasons in Italy.
His brilliant performances sent the right message to the Italian FA and the then 21-year old Rossi was included in Italy’s national squad for the 1978 World Cup. He scored 3 goals as the Azzuri’s finished fourth in the tournament, which Argentina went on to win. The real high point of Rossi’s career was to come four-years later.
On 23 March 1980, Italian law enforcement agency, Guardia di Finanza, uncovered a match-fixing scandal, which is now known as Totonero. Italian giants AC Milan and Lazio found themselves in the thick of things. So did Perugia, the side for which Italy’s baby faced assassin then played. Rossi, who pleads innocence till this day, was sentenced to a three-year ban from club and international football which was reduced to two, after appeals.
Rossi’s ban got over just in time for him to be called up to Espana ’82. Enzo Bearzot was openly criticised by the Italian media who thought Rossi wasn’t fit enough to be included in the national squad who were at least expected to put up a genuine challenge for the title. But coach Bearzot’s faith was going to be handsomely repaid and Rossi was going to silence his critics who left no stone unturned in criticising the newly signed Juventus man’s inclusion in the national squad.
Italy’s campaign started in the most un-inspiring fashion. The Azzuri, still reeling from the Totonero, could only manage draws in all of their group games and found themselves tied on points with debutants Cameroon. They progressed, behind Poland, only on having scored more goals than the African side. Paolo Rossi had just been a shadow on the pitch. The Italian media described him as “The Ghost of Paolo Rossi”.
The Italians were drafted with Latin American giants, Brazil and Argentina, into Group C, in the second round. In the opener, the Azzuri prevailed over Argentina with a 2-1 victory and on the second day, Diego Maradona’s side got knocked out after being handed a 3-1 loss by the favourites, Brazil. Maradona got himself sent off after kicking Brazil’s Joao Batista in the groin in the 85th minute. This meant, the third, and the last fixture of the group was going to be the deciding one.
Odds were hugely in the favour of the Brazilian side, which had steam rolled its way through the previous rounds, scoring 13 goals and conceding just 3. With the likes of Zico, Socrates, Falcao, Oscar and Junior in their prime, there was nothing stopping this Brazilian side. In 2011 FIFA Club World Cup, after defeating Santos, then Barcelona boss, Pep Guardiola said to a reporter, “I don’t know why you’re so curious and in love with this Barcelona squad, my dad always talked about the 1982 Brazil side”. Such was their reputation.
On 5th of July, 1982 in Estadio Sarria in Barcelona, the stage was set, swords drawn. Italy drew the first blood. With a stunning header to put the Azzuri ahead in the 5th minute, Rossi had finally broken the jinx. But it lasted only 7 minutes. Socrates teamed up with Zico who dribbled past a defender and returned the ball to him. The Doctor slotted it past Zoff. One all.
Later in the first half, Rossi restored Italy’s lead. Pouncing on Cerezo’s error and driving it past Waldir Peres. But the Brazilians were not going to sit back. In the 68th minute Junior darted up the left flank, cutting in, dribbling past a defender and sent in a well weighed pass at Falcao’s feet who was at the edge of the box. The Italian defence was well positioned. But, Cerezo made a decoy run taking 3 defenders with him. Falcao took the ball on his left, and from the edge of the box sent in a stunner. They were level again.
“I didn’t have all the power on my left, not all that strength. That goal was a cry of relief. I thought, if worse comes to worse, the match will end in 2-2 draw. It was a cry of relief, part of the fight to get to the semi-finals”, recalls Falcao. Brazil were to progress if the match ended in a draw, owing to their superior goal difference. But, Rossi had some other plans. At the 74th minute, Tardelli got a loose ball from an Italian Corner. He fired in a shot which found Rossi. Rossi turned it into the Brazilian goal with a single touch. There was no coming back for the Brazilians. Their tournament had ended. Twice they equalized, twice did Rossi rise to sink them. Meanwhile, there was no stopping the Italians. They went on to win the World Cup.
In the semi-finals, the Azzuri defeated Poland 2-0, again inspired by Paolo Rossi who netted both the goals for his side. In the finals, even West Germany couldn’t stop this Italian side. They went on to win 3-1. Rossi netted the opener. The 1982 World Cup was Italy’s, or more aptly, Paolo Rossi’s.
The team which was written off by almost all the experts was lifting the World Cup. The player who was so heavily criticized by his own nation’s media, had turned around the tournament for his country. Rossi won the Golden Boot having scored 6 goals in the final 3 games.
He was never a perfect striker or as technically gifted as other Italians. He was small and frail. But, he made history. He is one of those players who are remembered for their contributions in the World Cup and not for winning accolades for their clubs. Italy’s hero of most extraordinary circumstances, he chose the most apt title for his autobiography – “I Made Brazil Cry”.
Also, an admirer of La Furia Roja.