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It Was Italy, Prettily
Clive Gammon
July 19, 1982
Paolo Rossi exults while still on the ground as his header starts off Italy's 3-1 rout of West Germany in the final of the World Cup
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July 19, 1982

It Was Italy, Prettily

Paolo Rossi exults while still on the ground as his header starts off Italy's 3-1 rout of West Germany in the final of the World Cup

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On Sunday night in Spain, to the rockets' red glare, to the howling of 87,000 manic fans in the humid bowl of Madrid's Santiago Bernabeu Stadium—and before possibly the biggest TV audience in history, more than two billion viewers in 130 nations—Karl-Heinz Rümmenigge of West Germany, head high, face stoical, slipped away to his team's dugout and his own thoughts. It was 25 minutes into the second half of his nation's game against Italy in the final of the 1982 World Cup.

For him, the showdown in Spain was over. The first rockets of the night, 15 minutes earlier, had been sent up in ecstasy by Italian partisans to cheer a striker other than Rümmenigge. His name: Paolo Rossi. He had just put his country ahead 1-0. And it had been a clumsy and uncharacteristic foul by Rümmenigge himself that resulted in the free kick that in turn led to the chipped ball Rossi had headed home with delicate ease.

Now, as Rümmenigge came out of the game, the score was 2-0, and the rockets were ascending again. By withdrawing, Rümmenigge admitted what the crowd had long sensed, that his strained right thigh muscle could respond no more. And for the rest of the game, like a broken gunfighter who no longer goes out on the street, he watched as the blue-shirted Italians—the Azzurri—now confident, later brilliant, cut his team to pieces and in magnificent style won the World Cup 3-1. In winning, Italy, which had also been victorious in Cup play in 1934 and '38, stepped proudly beside Brazil, the only other three-time champion.

Before the match, Rümmenigge's breakdown had seemed possible. Aficionados, who hoped for a match-up between him and Rossi, two deadly marksmen who were tied for the lead in Cup scoring at five goals apiece, hadn't been optimistic earlier in the weekend. The thigh injury that had sidelined Rümmenigge for most of the semifinal against France looked as if it might keep him out of the final as well. Then during Sunday morning and afternoon rumors had spread that he would start after all, that his lordly economy of movement and his blinding acceleration in front of the goal would be seen—and be savored for the contrast it offered to the style of his rival.

Until less than two weeks before the final, Rossi—little Pablito—he of the five o'clock shadow and the dark, falconlike features, had been the most reviled player on a reviled Italian side that, up to and including its second-round game against reigning world champion Argentina, had relied almost entirely on savage defense.

It was after that game, won grindingly 2-1 by Italy, that Italian Defender Claudio Gentile, the least aptly named player in the tournament, had growled "This is not a dancing academy" when accused of fouling Diego Maradona, the Argentine star, for most of the 90 minutes. Even after that victory the preponderance of Italians in Spain was still convinced that it would be "Ciao, bambini" when The Forza Azzurri met Brazil. The Brazilians, who had scored 13 goals at that point, were wondrous to behold and with their fluid and creative style seemed likely to have little trouble with a defensive-minded bunch of thugs. The one factor no one took into account was Rossi.

He had been under a cloud for more than two years, ever since a grim Sunday in February 1980 when Italian police had interrupted major league games across the country to charge players with fraud. Two infuriated bettors had claimed they hadn't received value for considerable sums—as much as $240,000 to a whole team—paid to "influence" the results of games. Among the 38 players, coaches and managers named was the Perugia Club's Rossi, Italy's highest-salaried player and its idol after his brilliant performance during his country's fourth-place finish in the 78 World Cup.

The charges against all the accused were, in fact, dropped by the court for lack of evidence, and no allegation was ever made that Rossi took money, only that he refused to testify against fellow players. Nevertheless, the Italian soccer league held its own hearings, and with 17 other players, Rossi was suspended, in his case for three years. That term was reduced to two on appeal.

So it was only this May that Rossi began playing again, just three weeks before the start of the World Cup. His lack of playing time was evident. "Send him home!" howled the Italian press even before the opening round of the 24-team World Cup finals. The howling would continue until the memorable fifth minute of the Brazil game, when Forward Bruno Conti broke clear and got Defender Antonio Cabrini away on the left. Just to the right of the goal, disregarded by the Brazilians, Rossi was ready to head home Cabrini's crossed ball.

That game is now an authentic piece of World Cup history. For the first time the Italians committed themselves to attack. Twice Brazil rallied to tie the score. Twice Rossi put Italy ahead again. The final score of 3-2 included a hat trick for Pablito, and suddenly Las Ramblas, Barcelona's 42nd Street, which had echoed for days with a taberna-to-taberna samba beat from happy Brazilian fans, fell silent. In Rio, when Rossi got the winner, a 20-year-old shot himself dead.

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