Paolo Rossi: The Man Who Brought Calcio Back to Italy in 1982


Paolo Rossi is number 45 in 90min's Top 50 Greatest Footballers of All Time series.

Not every journey to the peak of football's mountain is the meteoric ​rise upon which most fairytales are based.

Success requires hardship, and all too often our hero suffers a heavy fall from which he must dust himself down and go again. 

In 1980, Paolo Rossi was banned from competitive football for three years due to alleged match-fixing, and Italy's number one striker had to watch his nation crash out of Euro 1980 and finish in fourth place.

Rossi was unable to compete again until the end of the 1981/82 season - after his ban was lifted prematurely - and he made only three appearances for Italian giants ​Juventus in that time, scoring one goal. There was no questioning the forward's predatory instinct, however, and despite lacking any match fitness, he was taken to the 1982 World Cup as his nation's primary goalscoring option. 

Plenty of weight on those out-of-practice shoulders, then. 

But he was after all, a real fox in the box. Rossi was not the most technically gifted forward, nor was he known for his ability outside of the penalty area. But give him half an opportunity to sniff out a shot at goal, and he would find the net with ease. And that was enough for him to be his nation's sole hope.

If you'd told any Italian who had witnessed their opening three games of World Cup 1982 that this team would go on to become champions, then they probably would have spat their morning cappuccino out in hysterics. 

I Nerazzurri faced Poland, Peru and Cameroon in the first group stage of the competition and unbelievably failed to win any of the contests, drawing all three. Rossi looked particularly rusty, and the gamble to lay all of their attacking hopes at his feet looked to have backfired. 

Despite Italy's miserable stalemates, they somehow escaped the group and progressed to the next round with three points. Job done, but there was a general feeling that this passage would only provide a temporary stay of execution from inevitable disappointment. 

What awaited Italy in the next round, would almost certainly confirm those suspicions. 

A Brazil side which featured the likes of Socrates, Falcao and Zico, and an Argentina team including Diego Maradona and Mario Kempes were the Italians' opponents in the second group phase - the modern day group of death. 

After scraping through the first group, this triangle was surely a step too far for this underachieving and unfancied Italy team. 

But Paolo Rossi is the protagonist of this story, and it's time our hero stepped to the fore. Although the Azzurri earned a shock win over Maradona's Argentina, they still had to beat Brazil in the final match of the group to qualify, due to the Seleção's superior goal-difference. 

And so Italy braced itself for what would prove to be one of the greatest matches in World Cup history.  

Rossi suddenly came alive after a disappointing opening four matches, and got Italy off to a flyer with a superb header after only five minutes. The lead was short lived, however, as Brazil pegged them back seven minutes later. 

But Rossi had re-found the goalscoring touch which had been snatched from him in 1980, and he put the Italians ahead once again on 25 minutes, latching on to a stray pass and firing a clinical finish beyond the goalkeeper. The Italian striker then added a third in the second half, swivelling in the box to tuck the ball away and put the game beyond the Brazilians. 

Italy progressed to the semi-finals with that victory, and Rossi was still not ready to wave goodbye to the Spanish sun just yet. I Nerazzurri faced Poland in the semi-final, and it was 'the Paolo Rossi show' once again.

The forward bagged both goals in Italy's 2-0 win, propelling them to the final, where they would meet the machine-like West Germans. 

From the horrendous lows of the tournament's opening matches, to the highs of reaching the final, it felt like this had to be Italy's year, after all. And sure enough, that man Rossi was on hand to make sure destiny would smile upon his nation. 

The Juve star stooped low to head Italy into the lead, and they went onto win the final by three goals to one. Marco Tardelli will always be remembered for his animalistic celebrations after scoring the second goal, but Rossi will be known as the man who dragged his country to victory, ending the World Cup as the top scorer with six goals. 

Having played three games from 1980 to the start of the 1982 World Cup, Rossi managed to write himself into the history books of his proud nation, help I Nerazzurri lift their third World Cup trophy and claim the 1982 Ballon d'Or in the process. 

A story of disgrace, redemption and determination with a rare fairytale ending to top it off. 

Grazie, Paolo.

90min's 'Top 50 Greatest Footballers of All Time' can be found here

Number 50: Luka Modric

Number 49: John Charles

Number 48: Hugo Sanchez

Number 47: Jairzinho

Number 46: Omar Sivori