Living Legends #6: Paolo Rossi – Italy

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Although this living legend was not as consistently great as previous entrants like Alfredo di Stefano, Sir Bobby Charlton or Paolo Maldini, it was his ability to resurrect his career after several setbacks, like Ronaldo, that warrants his inclusion.

This man basically won the 1982 World Cup on his own. He inspired Italy to victory. And all that after being banned from world football for two years beforehand…

Born September 23, 1956, Paolo Rossi did not seem to be heading into football at all, let alone into a collection of greats, as he did not really make it until the age of 20. By then he had already had 3 knee operations and his parent club, Juventus, were starting to lose interest. He was picked up by Vicenza in Serie B, after only having played 6 professional games for Como, and proceeded to burst into life.

In his first season, 1976/77, he managed to top the Serie B scoring charts as Vicenza secured promotion to Serie A. The following season he scored 24 goals, making him the only player to top the scoring charts in Serie B and Serie A in consecutive seasons. He was named in the 1978 World Cup squad by Azzurri manager Enzo Bearzot, scoring 3 goals as Italy came fourth.

After this came a large turning point in Rossi’s career. Vicenza and Juventus met to discuss who should have sole ownership of the player. Vicenza paid Juventus for his services and in 1978 Rossi became Italy’s most costly sportsman at that time. At the end of the 1978/79 season, Vicenza were relegated back to Serie B and Rossi was loaned to Perugia, it was here that things really went wrong.

While at Perugia, Rossi became involved in a betting scandal. He was found guilty and as a result was disqualified from professional football for two years, despite claiming his innocence throughout the trial.

He returned from his ban just in time for the 1982 World Cup. Having been so successul in the previous World Cup, Bearzot decided to name him in the Italian squad to play in Spain. The decision was criticised heavily in the press, which was backed up by some poor Azzurri performances in the opening round, including Rossi, who was said to be “a ghost wandering over the field”. Bearzot still refused to drop Rossi and it was this determination that changed both his and Rossi’s career.

Italy were in a round-robin and were due to face Argentina, the 1978 World Champions, and Brazil, the favourites for the crown. After battling to a 2-1 over Argentina, Rossi inspired Italy with an astounding hat-trick to beat Brazil 3-2 and send them into the semi-final. Rossi again sent Italy through with both goals in a 2-0 win over Poland to set up a World Cup Final against West Germany. Rossi opened the scoring with his sixth goal of the tournament, Marco Tardelli (and his famous celebration) and Alessandro Altobelli scored the others for the Azzurri as they won 3-1 and their third World Cup after 1934 and 1938.

Rossi was named top scorer (Golden Boot) and won the first ever Golden Ball for the best player, the only player to have won all three honours at the senior tournament. He was also named 1982 European and World Player of the Year. His return from despair was complete.

After the World Cup, he completed a move to Juventus. He continued his remarkable turnaround by winning the Scudetto, the Coppa Italia, the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup, the European Cup and the UEFA Super Cup all inside three years with La Vecchia Signora. After this he wound down his career at under-achieving AC Milan and Verona, before retiring in 1987, aged 31.

It may have been only one World Cup that really stands out in Rossi’s career, but it is the way that he returned from being out of football altogether to World champion in such a short space of time that makes him a living legend.

More Stories 1982 World Cup Azzurri Enzo Bearzo Juventus FC Marco Tardelli Paolo Rossi Perugia Serie B Spain 82 Vicenza