Everything great about Paolo Rossi perhaps spans seven memorable days in the summer of 1982. The combination to unlock the legend of his fame reads Sunday-Wednesday-Sunday. While quantitatively that covers eight days to be exact, one should never let a bit of numbers get in the way of a good headline.
Sure, Rossi featured for Italy in the 1978 World Cup, scoring three goals, and generally catching the eye. He briefly had been the world’s most expensive player when he moved to Juventus. But post that he had fallen off the radar a bit, and for most Indians (and probably many football fans worldwide), he was an unknown quantity. All that would change in the summer of 1982 during a truly memorable World Cup in Spain.
The Italian manager, Enzo Bearzot, picked Rossi in his squad, despite the striker being out of action for the previous two years due to a ban, This was because of a suspension, basis his alleged involvement in a match-fixing scandal. Opinion was severely divided on whether Rossi should have even been in the Italian squad for such an important tournament.
Italy’s underwhelming first three matches in the competition, only added impetus to those asking for Rossi to be dropped. The Azzuri drew the first three games, and only made it out of the pool stage on goal difference. They put up a much better performance in defeating the defending champions, Argentina, in the second phase, but Rossi remained scoreless, a virtual existential crisis for a player of his nature.
Sunday saw Italy take on the sunshine optimism that was Brazil – everyone’s favorite at that tournament – and picked by many to win it all at a canter. But the Azzuri were inspired that day. Led by the sublime opportunism of Rossi, who put up a textbook display of what predatory striking is all about, Italy stunned the world by dumping Brazil out. Rossi bagged a hat-trick on the day, and suddenly his name had started entering every football conversation around the world.
On Wednesday, in the semifinal against the resilient Poles, Rossi put up another masterclass in composed finishing. His sense of where to be when an opportunity knocked helped Italy overcome Poland by two goals to nothing in an otherwise dour game, both strikes being chalked up by their now-becoming-globally-famous number 20.
Sunday’s final would pit the Italians against a familiar old foe – the current European Champions – West Germany. It represented a classic confrontation of the passionate Latin temperament against organizational Teutonic excellence. After a scoreless first half, Rossi found a microcosm of possibility, and squeezed past the massed German attendants, to head in the first goal of the final in another moment of brilliant opportunism. At that point, he had scored all six of his team's last six goals!
Italy eventually beat West Germany 3-1. It was an unexpected triumph, given where the Italians had begun the tournament, how their initial group performance was, and the quality of the opposition they had managed to overcome. And yet, it was fully deserved. But perhaps it would never have been possible without the striking prowess of one man.
Rossi’s career never repeated those highs again. But to be fair, it would be well-nigh impossible for anyone to have such a magnificent week at the most important stage in anything.
His exploits have always inspired us to appreciate that life can be turned around in very little time.
The zero to hero transition could be in the matter of an instant.
His story tells us that life will always throw up an opportunity for us to resurrect things, a chance to scale the summit again, even an infinitesimal lucky break where, in many moments of darkness, there might momentarily appear an incandescent silver lining.
What one needs to do when that happens, is be alive in the moment, wriggle ourselves some elbow room, and pounce on it with all our vigor.
And there’s no better person to learn that art from than Italy’s late and great striker, Paolo Rossi.