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Last Saturday night at Giants Stadium in the New Jersey Meadowlands, the consummation so devoutly wished by almost all of the sellout crowd of 76,891 came agonizingly close. The occasion was no more than an exhibition soccer game—star-bedizened, to be sure, with most of the great names from last month's World Cup teams—but an exhibition nonetheless. For the multitude in attendance with claim to Italian blood, though, the game, which matched the European All-Stars against the Rest of the World All-Stars, was nothing less than a chance to celebrate Italy's new world championship. As an apotheosis, the fans longed for a goal from the champion's champion himself, Paolo Rossi, the deadly striker whose contribution to that World Cup victory had been paramount.
He had come close to scoring that goal half a dozen times in the game. Once, a shot of his cannoned off the inside of the post, hit the underside of the crossbar—and bounced away. Now, with but six minutes left and the score tied 2-2, he headed from close in, but every Italian heart sank when Goaltender Thomas N'Kono acrobatically tipped the ball over the bar. Those hearts rose again when Rossi's countryman, Giancarlo Antognoni, scored with two minutes to play to give the Europeans a 3-2 victory. But it wasn't quite the same as if Rossi had done it. On the unfamiliar AstroTurf, which Rossi later confessed to loathing, he wasn't to score. Still, he had tried valiantly to repay his followers for their welcome, which the night before had been powerful enough to engage the attention of the New York City police when 1,500 fans besieged his Manhattan hotel.
For more than a week before he stepped off a Concorde at Kennedy Airport last Friday morning, Rossi's life had been one drawn out, impassioned welcome home. However, immediately after the clamor and the joy in Madrid on the night of July 11, when, with the rest of the triumphant Italian team, he had held high the World Cup, Rossi had slipped away to Cannes on the French Riviera for a 2½-week vacation with his wife, Simonetta, who is five months pregnant with their first child. Impatiently, his country had awaited his return home.
Home is Prato, a textile manufacturing city of 160,000 inhabitants, 10 miles northwest of Florence. You might think Prato a little on the drab side unless you had been in the Piazza del Commune two weeks ago, jammed in the crowd on the steps outside the Municipal Hall. There, trumpeters gaudy in scarlet and blue trappings blew fanfares to this slight young man of 25 who wore a daffodil shirt and smiled and gave his townsfolk the predictable, warming words they wished to hear: that the glory was theirs, too, that all of them had been at his side in Spain. "Paol-o! Paol-o!" they chanted and then sang, Scendiamo tutti in piazza ("Let's all head for the town square"), a ditty composed for the occasion by a Bolognese fan. Meantime Rossi was close to drowning in a flood of kids and was saved only by several policemen, who naturally wanted autographs for themselves.
The most tenacious of autograph hunters would have had a hard time getting near the star during the previous 24 hours. Rossi and Simonetta had returned from France the day before the reception and, as everyone well knew, were holing up in his parents' two-story row house. His mother, Amelia, slight as her son, held off all comers. Indeed, while paparazzi lurked and newsmen vied to rent the telephones of neighbors to file their stories, she played a better defensive game against them than the Brazilians had against Paolo.
Amelia had never wanted her son to play professionally. Back in September 1972, when he was 16 and the famous Italian club, Juventus of Turin, wanted him to join its youth squad at its Alpine training ground, she had urged him to continue his accounting studies. But the combined efforts of Rossi and his father, Vittorio, had won out, and now she answered the door with irreproachable courtesy and steely resolution. He was out to lunch, she maintained, and who could tell when he would return?
If Rossi himself was unavailable, down the road, at the headquarters of the Ambrosiana soccer club, four members of the committee that runs the organization explained how they had always known they had a prodigy on their hands. There, on Ambrosiana's thinly grassed, concrete-hard pitch, a treasured scrapbook was displayed. One page had a yellowing press clipping of Rossi in uniform at 14. On another page, carefully pasted in, was his original league registration card. "He was ragazzo serio, a very serious boy," said Monsignor Danilo Aiazzi, the local priest who's president of Ambrosiana. "Sport was a mission for him." Aiazzi paused and dutifully added, "But he never let his Christian faith fall behind." The smile on the registration card is the same sweet one that can still bowl over most mothers of Italy, the one that his detractors say he cynically assumes as a public-relations gesture.
In any case, when the town engulfed him at the piazza, that flashing grin emphasized his boyishness. At 5'8", 146 pounds he was frail-looking and hollow-cheeked. This was Italy's chief sharpshooter, who had taken the esteemed Brazilians apart with a hat trick, who had scored the two goals that put Poland out of the semifinals, who had made a second-half goal that broke the deadlock against West Germany in the final, who, suddenly, is the best-known athlete in the world? This was the man whose disgrace-to-triumph story would sound absurdly melodramatic in a boy's adventure tale?
After just three days in Prato, Rossi joined his Juventus teammates for preseason training. These days Rossi can find few moments for reflection. But in the restaurant of a small hotel outside Turin he could recollect, almost tranquilly, the extraordinary reversal of his fortunes. Like the rest of the Italian team, he had had a miserable first round in the World Cup. Against Peru, Coach Enzo Bearzot had pulled him off after the first half. "My stomach was sick," said Rossi, "and I'd scarcely played in two years. In my legs, in my eyes, there was no rhythm." Also, he pointed out, he had to contend with the gadfly Italian press. "I was not indifferent to this," he said. "I was affected by bad opinions. But I was stubborn. I held on. And then, against Brazil, I got the goal that unlocked me." According to Edinho, the Brazilian defender who arrived in Italy last week to play a season with Udinese, an influenza epidemic is now raging in Brazil. "It lays people suddenly flat," says Edinho. "We call it Rossi flu."
Indeed, the special talent of Rossi is his suddenness, his ability to penetrate packed defenses, to administer the last killing thrust. Very few soccer players are as quick as he, perhaps only Karl-Heinz Rummenigge of West Germany and Diego Maradona of Argentina. In describing his talent, Rossi spoke of his "velocity, movement, execution." He befuddles opponents with abrupt, unexpected bursts of speed, perfect positioning (to defenders a kind of disappearing act) and the accuracy and power of his shot.