Rossi, the Man With the Rapier Thrust

Paolo Rossi (FIFA TV).

Another icon of Italian and world football passed way hardly a fortnight after Maradona. This time it is Paolo Rossi, goal-scoring star of Italy’s 1982 World Cup triumph. Diego Maradona was Argentinian but is indelibly associated with his Serie A years with Napoli at the same time that Paolo Rossi led the Juventus attack. The Italian with the rapier thrust took Italian and world football by storm in the very late seventies, scoring crucial goals, including a memorable hat-trick against strong favourites Brazil, en route to Italy’s confounding its critics and winning soccer’s most prized competition for the third time in its history. They would go on to come within a whisker of winning it again in1994 – a couple of missed kicks cost them in a penalty shoot-out final -and win it again in 2006.

Paolo Rossi’s achievement was, unlike Maradona’s four years later, also due to a team which hit peak form at the right time, the business-end of the tournament. If anything, while Diego Maradona carried the Argentinian team almost single handed, the 1982 Italian team carried Paolo Rossi as a virtual passenger throughout the group stage. It was players such as Bruno Conti and Marco Tardelli, as well the famed Juventus defence, which enabled the Italians to edge through the group phase without winning, but neither losing, a single game. Rossi, who had earlier caught the eye as a free scoring centre forward first with Vicenza and then on loan at Perugia, still reeling from the death of their player, Renato Curi, had been banned from football for two years. He had been implicated in the calcio scommesse betting scandal, a charge he refuted, always protesting his innocence. He missed the European Championship on home soil after having earned raving notices for the Italian team at the 1978 World Cup where Italy finished fourth, beating eventual winners, Argentina in the first group phase. Rossi, alongside Roberto Bettega, stole the show in the first rounds and part of the second group phase, scoring goals and moving freely assisted by players drawn from the team he would eventually join and play for exactly following the 1982 triumph – Juventus. Unlike in Spain, Italy started that campaign in Argentina like a house on fire until their brilliance tapered off and they ended losing a lead and match in what was virtually a semi-final against a Cruyff-less Holland side. Rossi started out as a member of the Juventus youth squad and played for Italy at that level.

By then, the end of Argentina 1978, Rossi had already earned himself star billing as one of the deadliest strikers in world football. He had set Serie A alight in season 1977-78 with his goal-scoring exploits with unfashionable Vicenza, or Lanerossi Vicenza, as they were known then, but with little impact in European club football, immediately after the 1978 Argentine expedition, as his Veneto club could not get past the UEFA Cup first round; they lost to Czech outfit, Dukla Prague. The following year (1979-80), playing for Perugia against Aris Salonica in the first round of the UEFA Cup, he would be on the receiving end of a 0-3 home reversal after opening the scoring, in the away leg in Thessaloniki, with a typical opportunist goal, a deft slight touch to a low cross in a 1-1draw.

It was Argentina and the 1978 World Cup which made the world sit up and take note of his goal scoring talents. He became more box office material and I recall meeting two Italians in my home country, in the following summer months, who were drooling in anticipation of Rossi turning out against their home club-side Rimini facing Vicenza in the Coppa Italia (Italian Cup) first rounds.

A 1980 European Championship on home soil would have been the perfect scenario for Rossi to repeat his Argentinian exploits but he was halted in his tracks because of the betting scandal ban. He was shown on Rai watching Italy’s inaugural match on TV from home in what turned out to be a stale 0-0 draw with Spain at a time when las rojas hit the bar with Rossi exclaiming “fortuna!”. The question after he was slapped a long three-year suspension, subsequently reduced to two, so that he could play in the Spain World Cup, was whether Rossi lost his mojo. He was flying as a striker in Argentina and domestically in the following years. Would his edge be permanently blunted ? Juventus did not think so and took the gamble of signing him back (he was in their Youth set up and even had a few first team appearances), this time as a fully-fledged international. The rest is history.

After stuttering in the first three matches and then getting into the groove of things against Argentina in the first match of the second phase group and the rest of the team on the cusp of a sudden rich vein of form, he exploded against Brazil. The lift of the 2-1 win against the previous holder, Argentina (a young and hacked Maradona – defenders had more leeway then- and all), spurred on Italy to greater efforts. They seemed to have peaked at the right time, almost like their great marathon runner Gelindo Bordin who starts slowly pacing himself astutely until eventually catching up and surpassing the front pack onto gold, as in the 1988 Seoul Olympics. The feeling in the aftermath of the final World Cup phase was that Italy had peaked to such an extent that nobody would live with them. And Rossi was to strike gold just when it mattered.

He was irrepressible against a suspect Brazil defence (they had great players in midfield, in attack bar one, and one real quality star at the back in Junior). With the explosive o bomba de Vespasiano from the outer periphery of Belo Horizonte, Eder, shooting scorchers from a distance, the late Taco de Dios Socrates backed by the equally cultured foot and vision of Roma’s Paulo Roberto Falcao from Porto Alegre, the setting of rhythm by the great Zico (Artur Nunes Coimbra) and the skilful foraging of another Atletico Mineiro product, Toninho Cerezo (soon to join Falcao at Roma), Brazil had the makings of a great world cup winning side worthy of succeeding the dazzling 1970 team. That team too had a suspect goalkeeper and defence save for Carlos Alberto but that was offset by the sublime skills of their midfielders and forward line. Italy was however playing a brand of football, counter-attacking with precision and solid teamwork, drawing on the advantage of having the bulk from their Serie A dominating Juventus team, although this was less of a case in 1982 than it was in 1978. Italy proved resilient with a goal scorer suddenly finding the form of his life after a two-year hiatus. Brazil, for its part, had lost Careca before the finals and had to make do with a jumping jack-flash of a replacement in Serginho from São Paulo at centre forward. Rossi continued his form with a brace against a Boniek- less Poland (suspension) and broke the deadlock in a tense final in a 3-1 win over an obdurate though tiring West Germany after Cabrini missed a first half penalty.

Rossi, recognised as the star of the 1982 tournament, mainly through the six goal salvo which earned him the top scorer accolade, took some of this form into his club football helping Juventus reach a European cup final the following year when they did not seem to turn up against an underestimated Hamburg, who themselves had lost two European finals in the previous three years, the second being quite shocking, a second leg crash at home to Sven Goran Eriksson’s Gothenburg. Juventus made up for this with a Cup Winners Cup victory the following year and a ‘win’ in a tragic final at the Heysel courtesy of a penalty award for a foul committed well outside the penalty area when their opponents Liverpool had a legitimate penalty claim waved away in the latter stages. The protests from the Liverpool players were hardly vigorous. Controversy in this regard became superfluous given the tragic events involving Liverpool supporters ambushing the Juventus section, after a wall in a shoddy old stadium, collapsed, leaving 39 Juventus fans dead. This was a strange match steeped in bloodshed where the actual game itself had lost all significance.

While Maradona achieved cult status in Argentina and Naples, Paolo Rossi attained a similar standing at national level. He became Pablito Nazionale, a national treasure. His goals and those of his team-mates in 1978 and 1982 lifted the gloom from an Italy shocked by Italian urban guerrilla warfare, with assassinations attributed to Left and Right gangs, when the country continued to threaten the state of destabilisation, a threat which can be traced back to the early post World War II Years.

His goals in Argentina came a few months following the strage (disaster) in Via Fani, Rome, which led to the abduction of Aldo Moro, the man from the centre-left of the ruling DC at the heart of the so-called compromesso storico (historical compromise) that would have brought the PCI, the largest Communist Party in Western Europe, into power. With the abduction and subsequent execution of Moro, following the massacre of his driver and bodyguards, a carnage presented as a direct attack (a Gramscian war of manoeuvre) on the State (a total disregard for Gramsci’s strictures with respect to such attempts in Western Europe with its strong complex of ideological institutional networks), the chances of this compromise being reached were nullified. These were dangerous times, times of terror known as gli anni di piombo (the years of lead). Some within the PCI, including its Secretary General, Enrico Berlinguer, feared the possibility of another Chile in this country ensconced at the heart of the US sphere of influence in Europe during the Cold War.

Rossi, with his youthful innocence on the pitch when scoring, together with his team mates in the national side, brought temporary relief to a soccer-mad country shaken and scarred by political violence. His innocence soon turned into experience with his being implicated and having been found guilty of corruption in the calcio scommesse (match fixing) affair. He survived that and, in his own words, brought redemption to himself with his goals in Spain 1982, which also continued to bring relief to millions of Italians in a country riven by violence from organised crime, despite the apparent flickering embers of guerrilla warfare said to have been brought to an end by the destruction of the Red Brigades. General Alberto della Chiesa is said to ‘have got to the bottom of the BR’ and destroyed them. He wanted to do the same with the Sicilian Mafia. This was a different kettle of fish. Whether through fear or their existence as an alternative state within a state, the Mafia is steeped in a much broader consciousness. Italians speak of La Piovra, an octopus stretching its tentacles far and wide. It was the Mafia who got to the bottom of him as he and his wife were unceremoniously gunned down in Palermo. This occurred a few months after the 1982 World Cup. Rossi’s goals and his team’s triumphs provided temporary relief from these sanguinary episodes too and the contradictions of a country governed by l’arte di arrangiarsi (the art of fixing things) which has its great and, alas, unsavoury aspects. Weak state notwithstanding, the country moves forward, no matter – eppure si muove, to echo Galileo. This was also the time of a huge scandal engulfing one of Italy’s largest banks, the Banco Ambrosiano with close ties to the Vatican – the body of its Chairperson and ‘God’s Banker’, Roberto Calvi, was found hanging from Blackfriars Bridge in London. Many troubadours referred to as cantautori would wax satirical in their work, underscoring the great contradictions lacerating Italian society. The same applied to comedians, writers and actors, one prominent figure being the mourned footballer’s namesake, Paolo Rossi, an entertainer (singer, actor, comedian, writer). Football, as the world’s favourite sport, has a tendency to paper over these contradictions, instilling a belief (ephemeral?) in the national project. Paolo Rossi, the footballer, not the satirist, was a key figure in the instilling of this belief. May he rest in peace.

Peter Mayo is Professor at the University of Malta and author of Higher Education in a Globalising World: Community engagement and lifelong learning (Manchester University Press, June 2019).