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.
Each master striker, of course, has a distinctive style. "I don't have the physical power of Karl-Heinz and some others," he said. "I interpret my role in my own way." That is modest obscurantism. Rossi must be aware of his shattering speed on the turn, his opportunism, his ability to anticipate the ball's movement when it's moving fast and eccentrically.
As Rossi spoke in the restaurant, questing faces began appearing in the dining room doorway. The Italian soccer fan is arguably the most rabid sports-follower in the world. He is known, colloquially, as a tifoso, which has the same root as typhus, as in fever. Once Rossi had made his first public appearance in Prato, there would be little escape from the fevered ones. When he was glimpsed at the Comunale Stadium in Turin, where he met his Juventus teammates, the surge of the some 5,000 tifosi who had gathered to welcome him almost broke the steel barriers. Sweating, desperate cops had their hands on side-arms before he was spirited to offices inside the stadium.
The fans hung in, though. They knew that the team bus soon would take Juventus, probably the strongest soccer club in the world, with six world champion Azzurri on the side, to its country training grounds in Villar Perosa, 5,000 feet up in the Alps. The bus, it turned out, was driven by a fan, a cabdriver named Pinno Lucchini who provided his services free in exchange for spending his vacation with his idols. A honking caravan of cars, scooters and vans followed close behind the bus as it headed up the mountains, causing monumental traffic jams in tiny Villar Perosa. That evening, 2,000 of the hardiest tifosi watched with intense concentration and some applause as the players jogged and went through light calisthenics.
The fans were there the next morning also, some changing into running shoes to accompany the team on a mountain trot. More piled into cars and greeted the players at the end of their run. The auto contingent included eight plainclothesmen who had been assigned to anticipate anything from a traffic accident to a kidnapping of Rossi by the Red Brigades. Most fans were upset on learning that Rossi and four other Juventus players would leave in a few days for New York City. Neither the tifosi nor Juventus Coach Giovanni Trapattoni liked the idea that the players would miss part of preseason training.
It had been said that Rossi would be difficult to approach, that he was shying from the strong whiff of hypocrisy he now detected in the fulsome praises of both the fans and the Italian press. Pettegolezze was a word he fired at the latter more than once last week. He used it to refer to the snide gossip, the malicious denigration he had suffered until his hat trick against Brazil. In the first round of the World Cup, a section of the Italian press corps had suggested that the $60,000 (in fact, $15,000) each team member would receive should Italy advance to Round 2 would be better spent on the country's poor and infirm.
That slur led to the Silenzia Stampa, the refusal of the Italian players to speak to their own press until after the World Cup final. The Italian media were even harder on Rossi himself. At their hotel near Vigo in northern Spain, he roomed with teammate Antonio Cabrini. Although he later claimed he was joking, the correspondent of Milan's II Giorno wrote that Rossi and Cabrini lived "like man and wife."
"I had no arms to defend myself," said Rossi in Turin, "except to uphold a silenzia. They went beyond bounds. Some behaved well, but it was impossible to discriminate. So we all shut up." He laughed wryly. "It worked well, because we won. If things had gone badly...." Clearly Rossi didn't wish to think of what would have been written had Italy lost.
Rossi has had to contend with much worse than a frivolous accusation in II Giorno. During his first two years with Juventus he had three knee operations, and the team cut him. Fortunately for the club, however, it still retained rights to him. "I went through moments," said Rossi, "when I thought I couldn't go on. But I am stubborn."
He kept on playing, for second-division sides. Then in 1977-78 he scored 24 goals to become the Italian League's top striker, and the next year made the national squad that went to Argentina for the World Cup. He was the star of the team that reached the final stages of the competition, and he returned home in glory with the sobriquet "Pablito."
That glory was forfeited, as it turned out, in the lobby of a hotel in Vietri sul Mare near Salerno on Dec. 29, 1979, the day before a game in which Perugia, a team to which Rossi was on loan, would meet Avellino. In the lobby he was playing tombola (a form of bingo) with his teammates. One of them told him that a fan wished to have a word with him. Stories diverge at this point, but all agree that the so-called fan was the notorious gambler Massimo Cruciani, a 32-year-old fruit dealer from Rome.
Even in the worst scenario, Rossi is accused of no more than foolishness. Cruciani reportedly proposed to Rossi that he score two goals against Avellino on chances that would be provided. Money wasn't offered, just the opportunity to improve his statistics. Naively, Rossi agreed. The final score was 2-2, and Rossi got both goals for his side. When the Italian Soccer Federation found out about the incident, it suspended a total of 38 players, coaches and managers, including Rossi, who was banned for three years. He appealed and the federation reduced Rossi's suspension to two years.
Rossi doesn't deny meeting Cruciani but claims he thought he was merely a fan. "In the whole story of the scandal," said Rossi, "nothing concrete was ever proved against me. They lumped me with two years for something I never committed. They condemned me on a doubt. There was a miasma of lies. Some were guilty, but they treated everybody in the same fashion."
During these happy days, though, the pain can be swiftly ameliorated. At the restaurant a waiter, so deferential as to be comic, approached. "Will you take wine with the champion of Italy?" he said to the foreigner eating with Rossi. The champion's face cleared, and his dark eyes danced. "Take the red," he said. "I'll translate for you."
His English is spotty at best, but he tries. "Piccolo...leetle Eetaly," he said, referring to his upcoming trip to New York City and its Italian district. Then the visitor learned with astonishment that the world's greatest striker had played in the U.S. before, in one preseason game for Buffalo of the MISL. That was on Nov. 1, 1980, and those who were at the game know he wore his jersey with trepidation because he was still under suspension and didn't want the international soccer authorities to know he was playing. For the record, Rossi had one goal and one assist for Buffalo.
Consider the difference between that furtive interlude and Rossi's triumphant return last week. If he didn't score in Saturday's game, he was still impressive. "He has a great capacity for appearing behind your back," said Astolfo Romero of Colombia, who marked Rossi most of the game. Perhaps Romero was thinking of how Rossi had eluded him in the second half and had headed a perfect pass to Kevin Keegan of England for the goal that began the Europeans' comeback from a 2-0 deficit.
"I was happy with the game personally, but collectively, no," said Rossi afterward. "No teamwork." The hollow cheeks were split with the boy's grin again. This was one game at least that didn't matter, but back in preseason camp with the tifosi all around, serious life would start again. For the tifosi of the U.S.A., though, it had been but a fleeting and a tantalizing glimpse of the world's most famous athlete.