Diego Maradona died two weeks before Paolo Rossi, but they were already linked -- two scamps who hijacked separate World Cups.
Rossi got there first by four full years, more of a surprise than when Diego Armando later commandeered the 1986 World Cup. Maradona was expected to produce a World Cup in his career, but Rossi came from essentially nowhere, from Limbo, from ignominy.
I was at both World Cups, my first and second of eight. Rossi’s rampage stunned me, a Yank who had no clue about world soccer, but was curious.
Brazil was always the favorite and the experts also mentioned Argentina with El Pibe de Oro (The Golden Kid), West Germany, of course, and, reflexively, there was always England, only 16 years past its host-nation glory of 1966.
Instead….instead….Italy came roaring into the World Cup in Spain, like kids on Vespas, roaring into a genteel piazza, grabbing unattended purses from table top -- the dreaded Scippatori.
Italy, the Azzurri, came as a shock after a gambling scandal a few years before. Rossi apparently knew of the coup, but said nothing, and was suspended for two years – at the peak of his career, as an opportunistic forward who found unguarded entryways to the goal.
Rossi was reinstated – what a coincidence – only months before the World Cup because the chatty manager, Enzo Bearzot, wanted him on the squad. I had not arrived at the World Cup in Spain for the first round, and Rossi barely arrived for the three matches, rusty and so insecure that he was waiting for Bearzot to bench him. However Bearzot kept telling him to get his stuff together, he was playing.
The engine was tuned up by the second round – a bizarre three-team round robin quarterfinal. Argentina, which had won in 1978, was touted to win, this time with chunky spectacular Maradona. Brazil, the perennial darlings who played with a flare, was also touted to win, with brilliant offensive players named Socrates, Zico and Falcao.
Italy played Argentina in the first match, and a swaggering defender named Claudio Gentile, known in Italy as Qaddafi, not only because he had been born in Libya but because he tended to hurt people. Non-molto-Gentile mugged Maradona early and often, rendering him pointless, insensate. (That is Gentile, Qaddafi, shirtless, in the video above.)
Meantime, vroom, vroom, here came Italy, players operating in space they never saw in the nasty defensive-minded Serie A of Italy. They moved the ball upfield and then, out of nowhere, came Paolo Rossi – still in the starting lineup? --che sorpresa – operating in wide open lanes that could have accommodated six lanes of Italian autoroutes.
Rossi did not score, but was a threat, and Maradona hobbled off, and Gentile swaggered in victory.
Next, Italy played Brazil, which moved the ball so magically for 75 or 80 yards but then stumbled into Italy’s defensive chain – Il catenaccio.
I remember one moment. The Brazilian right back, Leandro, wanted to get into the fun of moving the ball upfield, so he took off downfield. His swath of unguarded field suddenly was invaded by 12 or 14 Vespas, motors roaring, vroom-vroom.
Italy won, and Rossi scored three goals, I was beginning to get the point. Rossi scored twice in the semifinals against Poland, whose best player was banned for too many yellow cards. Then in the finals, with West Germany’s best player hobbled with a leg injury, Rossi scored once and Italy won, 3-1.
Rossi was voted the star of the game, and while I was in Madrid, writing about the match, my friend Thomas Rogers of the Times, back home in New York, wrote a lovely Man in the News profile of the surprising Paolo Rossi:
I will always love the Brazil of 1982 – the best team ever to not win a specific World Cup – but I was now a wannabe Italian.
Other teams, other stars, come and go: Zidane’s beautiful final in 1998, the U.S. getting cheated by a blatant handball by Germany in 2002, Spain’s coming-of-age in 2010, Germany’s nearly-perfect meshing in 2014.
Now that I am retired and free to root, I wait for the United States to mature (which it is doing with magical frequency from young stars like Reyna and McKennie and Pulisic in Europe)
But I always have a second team – Italy – the blue shirts, the merry little tarantella of an anthem, the legends of maestri like Roberto Baggio and Andrea Pirlo and Alessandro Del Piero, and always going back to Paolo Rossi, who came from disgrace and took over a World Cup. Vroom-vroom
You always remember your first.
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(Obit of Paolo Rossi in The Guardian.)
Hansen Alexander passed on Dec, 22, 2020, and I just caught up.
He was a smart and passionate writer and lawyer, who often tried to educate and inform me. I am proud of his
interview with, of all people, me:
It's on his blog. (Just past photo of rat!) My thanks for his interest. GV