The sad truth is that a single black mark in an otherwise distinguished career can be what many people are remembered for in all walks of life. Where the error of judgement or surrender to temptation comes late in a man’s career, there is no time to recreate a positive impression from scratch. South African cricket fans will confirm this. So too, one imagines, would Hansie Cronje were he still with us. So when you get a second chance to shape and mould how people will define you, proving oneself on the highest stage becomes more important than ever. One man who realised this at exactly the right moment was Paolo Rossi.
Rossi was a product of the Juventus youth system who had suffered trouble with injury in his younger days, needing more than one knee operation to keep his fledgling career alive. Seen as too diminutive and slight to be a centre forward, he was initially pegged as a right winger and loaned to Como of Serie B to gain first-team experience. It was in the 1976/77 season that fate was to help Rossi on his way. Sent on loan to another Serie B side, Vicenza, injuries necessitated a move into Rossi’s preferred role leading the line. The result was 21 goals as Vicenza clinched the Serie B title with Rossi the top goalscorer. The move made permanent, Rossi surpassed all expectations the following season, netting 24 goals as Vicenza surprisingly finished second in la classifica. In an age where calcio was still a game based on strong defence, Rossi’s deluge was remarkable. He topped Serie B and Serie A scoring charts in consecutive seasons. By this time, he had become a starter for the Azzurri, so the next stage waiting to be set alight was the 1978 World Cup in Argentina. Again, key goals against France and Hungary helped send them through the group and a goal to win a game against Austria was enough to set up a semi-final showdown against Holland’s ‘total football.’ Though it was lost, Enzo Bearzot and his team could consider their eventual fourth place a success in a very competitive tournament. Rossi had established a great understanding with Roberto Battega, with whom he would interchange and drop into deep or wide positions, demonstrating there was more to his game than just goals, assisting two strikes in the tournament in addition to the three he scored himself. He also acquired the nickname Pablito from Argentian journalists, which would remain with him.
Second-season syndrome was to curse Lanerossi in 1978/79 as a last-day defeat at already-relegated Atalanta saw them finish in the drop zone and return to Serie B. Rossi’s 15 goals in a poor side was a tremendous effort, even if this time he had to watch Lazio’s Bruno Giordano take the golden boot. Rossi’s new club was Perugia, who had finished second in 1979 and now added the peninsula’s top forward player to their roster. With that in mind, their subsequent tenth-placed finish was as a great disappointment and would soon be viewed in a more sinister light. The Totonero scandal of 1980 saw allegations of bribery, shady betting syndicates and pre-ordained results. Milan and Lazio were relegated and four clubs, including Perugia, were docked five points from the start of the following season. More than twenty players and officials, including Giordano and Rossi, were banned from the game for varying periods. Rossi’s ban, originally three years was reduced to two on appeal. That he had scored thirteen goals that season now seemed a worthless statistic. In fact, calcio was perceived as rotten to the core, with no result to be taken on face value. For what it is worth, Rossi always protested his innocence, and later claimed in his autobiography, Made Brasil Cry that the accusations levelled at him and others had been a cocktail of speculation and fantasy. Rossi asserts to this day that he was a victim of an investigation that became a witch-hunt of McCarthy-ite proportions.
Rossi’s next game, and indeed goal, came in a 5-1 win for Juventus in Udine on May 2 1982. The return to football after a two-year lay-off saw a returning Rossi who lacked some of his usual sharpness. Though bianconeri had signed him at a knock-down price while suspended, there remained no substitute for competitive match practice. Three games at the end of a scudetto-winning season were hardly ideal preparation and he was something of a gamble for Enzo Bearzot as he took the Azzurri to Spain in 1982. For the first half of the tournament, it looked like the move had backfired spectacularly. Goalless in Italy’s three draws with Poland, Cameroon and Peru, Rossi, like his team were in the last chance saloon in a group of death with Argentina and Brazil. After seeing off the former 2-1, they came up against the side of Falcao, Zico, Serginho and Socrates who many feel were the ‘rightful’ winners of that World Cup. While Brazil aimed to please, Italy remembered the principal aim, which was always the result. Rossi showed the full repertoire of the born goalscorer with a header, a successful one-on-one and a poacher’s effort after a corner to seal a 3-2 win for the Azzurri. Two close range headers saw Poland brushed aside, which set up a final against West Germany. Rossi predictably broke the deadlock with a trademark stooping header from close in. Of course, Marco Tardelli would provide the most vivid image of the tournament, his manic, emotional celebration to a killer second goal the subject of endless replays and photographs. Two years earlier, Rossi had been a figure associated with scandal and disgrace. Now, with the World Cup golden shoe to go with European player of the year award, he was a national hero and overnight Azzurri legend.
Post-1982, Rossi’s highlights would be a scudetto season in 1983/84 during which he found the net 13 times. He also picked up a winners’ medal in the 1985 European Cup final, though memories of a game that should not have taken place are obviously overshadowed by the tragic human story that unfolded that night in the Heysel stadium. After winding his career down with a struggling Milan and Verona, Rossi played some masters football and wrote his autobiography. Interestingly, he never followed some of the others from 1982 who went into coaching. Perhaps seeing his hard-won reputation lost once, he realises how quickly it could all be undone again. Whether innocent or guilty, at least Rossi got the chance to set the record straight. Many before and after would have killed for that opportunity.
Castel di Sangro and the 1990s miracle
Piacenza – The Serie A years 1993-2003
When Cymru met Italia, nearly a Napoli nightmare
Disaster for Fiorentina in 1993 means relegation from Serie A
The Rossoneri Lakers Part i: Milan Magic in the late 1980s
The Rossoneri Lakers Part ii: Decline of an Empire
Rossi’s redemption 1982