Some players control games, some are capable of outstanding pieces of skill, while others impose themselves through sheer physical strength. Paolo Rossi didn't fit into any of these categories. He was quite simply a born goalscorer. At the 1978 FIFA World Cup Argentina™ and even more so at Spain 1982, the Italian allied economy of movement, perfect positioning and innate opportunism to become one of the finest strikers on planet football.
Hit by scandal
But Paolo Rossi's career could so easily have ended prematurely in 1979. Basking in the glory of his outstanding displays in Argentina, he returned to the Campionato to spearhead Perugia's attack. His season was going well, until 30 December 1978 when his side could only manage a 2-2 draw with Avellino.
After an inquiry the following year, Rossi and several team mates were accused and convicted of "fixing" the match. The Italy forward claimed that his reply to a question posed by an opposing player was wholly innocent: "2-2? If you want...". In spite of these denials, the punishment was severe: a three-year suspension, commuted to two on appeal. Aged twenty-two at the time, Rossi was cut off in his prime.
He had been spotted at an early age by Turin giants Juventus, who loaned him to Serie B outfit Como in a bid to toughen him up. But it was after switching to fellow Serie B side Vicenza that he exploded, his 21 goals during the 1976-1977 season hoisting the Biancorossi up to Serie A. He did even better the next season, scoring 24 times to seal second spot for his side, behind the Vecchia Signora.
A young starlet
Unsurprisingly, Enzo Bearzot gave him his first international cap the same year. The Rossi bandwagon was rolling. Aged just 21, he had an excellent tournament at Argentina 1978, displaying his poacher's instinct to the watching world. His tally of three goals and two assists boded well for the future.
At 1.74m and 66 kilos, he was never going to be a physical presence, but he had the knack of being in the right place at the right time. His first international goal against France at Mar Del Plata illustrates this perfectly: after ricocheting around the box, the ball rebounded off Rossi's tibia into the back of the net. Proof, if it were needed, that the man who would be dubbed "Pablito" after the tournament possessed a true striker's instinct.
Then came the suspension. Having being snapped up again by Juventus just before the ban took effect, Rossi was forced to spend two years on the sidelines. His return to the field came in April 1982, a few weeks before the 1982 World Cup in Spain. Enzo Bearzot, still coach of the Squadra Azzurra, showed his faith in Rossi's ability by taking him to Spain despite his two-year absence from action.
The legendary Italian coach later explained the thinking behind his decision: "I knew that if Rossi wasn't in Spain, I wouldn't have had an opportunist inside the penalty box. In that area, he was really good, really fast, always ready to fool defenders with his feints."
The tifosi, like the media, were sceptical, even more so after the first round. Italy scraped through on goal difference, having garnered just three draws and a paltry two goals. Rossi, a starter in all three, failed to make his presence felt.
In the second round, the Italians found themselves grouped with Brazil and Argentina. Rossi again fired blanks in the Argentina game, which Italy nevertheless won 2-1. Despite the intense media criticism, Bearzot elected to give the Tuscan one last chance.
The idol of a country
Italy needed a win against Brazil, while the Seleçao only required a draw to progress. The Azzurri emerged from an extraordinary match 3-2 victors, but it was 'Pablito' who stole the limelight with a stunning hat-trick delivered in his own inimitable style. A header and two opportunistic strikes in the area. The Rossi goal machine was activated, and it was to blaze a path all the way to the final.
Two more goals came his way in the semi-final against Poland, before he chalked up his sixth strike in the final against Germany. He finished the tournament as top scorer, condemning those who had been calling for his head just a few days earlier to a large slice of humble pie. "I felt protected, and that was a decisive factor", he would later explain. Rossi's hour of glory had arrived at last. The icing on the cake came with the European Footballer of the Year award later that year.
A fond ending
Back at Juve with Antonio Cabrini, Marco Tardelli, Gaetano Scirea and Claudio Gentile, not to mention Michel Platini and Zbigniew Boniek, two more stars of the World Cup in Spain, Pablito's appetite for honours was insatiable. The Italian Cup in 1983, the Scudetto and the Cup Winners' Cup in 1984, the European Cup in 1985 all followed.
After this flurry of silverware, he bade farewell to Turin to join arch-rivals AC Milan in the summer of 1985. Honours were harder to come by with the Rossoneri, but he was nonetheless selected in the squad for the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. He didn't play, however, and, after a brief spell with Verona, finally hung up his boots the following year at the age of 31.
Prone to injury on account of exhaustion, Rossi had opted to call it a day before playing one match too many. Something of a loner, he quickly vanished from the world of football to concentrate on his passion for deep-sea diving. However he will be remembered first and foremost as a very special striker, blessed with a tremendous goalscoring instinct and a degree of humility we may never see the like of again.
Did You Know?
Paolo Rossi’s boyhood idol was Fiorentina’s Swedish winger Kurt Hamrin, who was nicknamed ‘Little Bird’ when he watched him in the 1960s.
After retiring from the game in 1987 Rossi moved into the construction business in a firm he started with former team-mate Giancarlo Salvi.
The 1978 finals ended in disappointment for Rossi though he conceded: “Home advantage was decisive but Argentina still deserved to win.”
Rossi said of the 1982 Final victory over Germany FR: “We felt unstoppable and showed it on the pitch by dominating excellent opposition.”
Rossi quit when he "got tired of being locked away in hotels and training camps". He said: "I didn’t want people running my life anymore."