One of my earliest World Cup memories  is sitting in front of the television clutching a plastic tango football while being mesmerised by the World Cup  1982  encounter between Italy and Brazil.

The sheer colour and pageantry of the occasion along with the constant samba drumbeat made a memorable game simply unforgettable.

Millions of soccer fans around the world witnessed Italy  twice  come back from the brink of World Cup elimination to knockout one of the pre-tournament favourites before going on to lift the trophy themselves.

One man was responsible for breaking the hearts of millions of Brazilian soccer fans that hot July afternoon in Barcelona. That man’s name was Paolo Rossi, a  player  who hadn’t kicked a ball  professionally  for two years prior to the  tournament.

The Man

Born September 23,  1956 in Santa Lucia,  Paolo Rossi became one of the most feared strikers in Serie A  following spells at Como, Vicenza, Perugia, Juventus, AC Milan and Verona.

Known as \’Pablito’, he was selected by Enzo Bearzot for the 1978 Italian World Cup squad in Argentina and netted three times. A natural goal-poacher  he  appeared to have the world at his feet until an  enquiry in 1979  accused Rossi and several other team mates of  fixing  a 2-2 draw  between Perugia and  Avellino  the previous season.

A  three-year suspension  was handed down  which  was  reduced  to two  after an  appeal  but Rossi (aged 22)  was  unable to play professionally for the next 24 months.

Bearzot never lost faith in his young striker and amazingly selected him for the 1982 World  Cup squad.  Italian journalists  argued  he was  in  no  shape  to take part  and  described  Rossi  as  \’a ghost wandering  around  the field aimlessly’  in  Italy’s  group games.

But Bearzot  persisted  with Rossi  amid continual protests from the media. He  was  handsomely  rewarded with astonishing displays  from \’Pablito’  in the latter stages of the tournament.

The Match

44,000 crammed into the  Estadio Sarriá  ground  in Barcelona for the crucial second round  Group C  encounter  on July 5, 1982.  The famous old stadium,  home to Espanyol until its demolition in 1997,  heaved with excitment  hours before kick-off.

Unlike recent World  Cups, the ’82 edition saw four groups of three first-round qualifying countries play  a  round-robin mini-league  to determine the  competition’s  semi-finalists.

Both Italy and Brazil had  already  defeated Argentina in what was labelled the \’group of death’ to setup what was essentially a quarter-final  tie.

A draw would suffice for Brazil who had already lit up the tournament with a series of scintillating displays and world class goals. Blessed with phenomenal talent such as Junior, Socrates, Falcao, Eder  and Zico,  the South Americans were expected to progress.

By contrast, Italy’s progression had been stifled by ultra-defensive  displays  and roughhouse tactics.  The Azzurri  had  struggled  to qualify from their initial group  registering  three un-impressive draws against Poland, Peru and Cameroon and an on-going war with the Italian media resulted in  the  entire squad refusing to conduct any interviews.

Italy had to beat Brazil to  make the last four  and kicked-off on a sweltering afternoon with few pundits giving Bearzot’s side any hope of winning.

Italy stunned their opponents with an uncharacteristically up-tempo start  and  grabbed  the  lead in the fifth  minute.  Antonio Cabrini  curled a pass to the  far post where Rossi ghosted in  to  glance  a downward header into the net.

Brazil responded within  seven  minutes of falling behind. Socrates combined with Zico and raced into the penalty area before shooting low past Dino Zoff to tie the score at 1-1 and send the Brazilian fans into wild samba  celebrations.

Once again  the Azzurri  hit back when Rossi intercepted Cerezo’s horrific back-pass and hammered the ball past a stranded Perez to restore Italy’s lead.

Brazil had to wait until the 68th minute to reply  when right-back Junior embarked on a mazy dribble and found Falcao on the edge of the box. The blond-haired  midfielder  unleashed  a  thunderbolt  into the bottom corner of the net.

The Brazilian’s celebration was as memorable as his  goal; the Roma  player  racing  arms outstretched towards his team’s dug  out and evading  a horde of substitutes before embracing his manager.  Brazil knew a draw would be enough to qualify  but the Italians had other ideas and abandoned their defensive tactics in search of a  winner.

The match-winning and career-defining  goal of Paolo Rossi arrived in the 75th minute. The South  Americans  failed to deal with a Bruno Conti corner and the ball fell to Rossi on the edge of the six-yard box from an initial Marco Tardelli shot. The much-maligned Italian striker made no mistake with  a pirouetting  turn and shot to  complete his hat-trick and  win  a magnificent  game 3-2.  From zero to hero, Rossi became an  overnight Italian soccer legend.

The Aftermath

Brazil returned home to lick their wounds having produced the most electrifying displays of the \’82 tournament  while  Italy went on to  capture  the  FIFA World Cup  trophy with Rossi taking home the golden boot  award for top scorer  thanks to  a  personal haul of six.

A brace in the semi-final  win  over Poland was followed by one of Italy’s three strikes in their 3-1 victory over West Germany in the  decider.

Paolo Rossi  won the European Footballer of the Year award in 1982 and ended up scoring 20 goals in 48 internationals for his country.  He  retired after a glittering  domestic and international  career to  tend to  his farm in Tuscany where he produces Wine and Olive Oil to this day. He is  also a  regular football pundit on Sky Italia.

This article first appeared in the Evening Echo of Saturday 17/4/2010.

Ger McCarthy is author of Off Centre Circle, which chronicles the curious life of  a West Cork League junior footballer.

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