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Rossi, Falcao, Conti and Zoff: Serie A lit up the 1982 World Cup
SERIE A STARS IN THE WORLD CUP In an epic 3-2 duel between Italy-Brazil, two talented Roma teammates clashed: Conti and Falcao. Brazil took a beating thanks to a fantastic hat-trick by a player that had been in a drowse... until then
by Federico Formica
Same language, different countries. After the World Cup in Argentina it was Spain's turn to host the most important football competition. Spain '82 was the first World Cup with 24 teams and the first ever to host participants from five continents. The level of quality in the tournament was high and the referees matched up to such an important event, unlike in Argentina. According to the tradition, South American sides didn't go far in a European World Cup; only Brazil have managed to win in Europe, at Sweden '58. In 1982, the semifinals were an European affair: Poland-Italy and West Germany-France. The Spanish World Cup marked another record; Hungary-El Salvador 10-1 is still the highest scoring game in World Cup history. Italy reached Spain amidst a very negative atmosphere; in 1980, the first match-fixing scandal blew up, in which many famous footballers were involved. The striker Paolo Rossi was among them. He had just returned from a two-year ban when Italy's coach Enzo Bearzot decided to call him for the upcoming World Cup. Debates were harsh in tone and neverending.


The Azzurri were alone; the fans were disappointed, the press kept trashing them and the Italian football federation frowned at Paolo Rossi's call. Bearzot essentialy reconfirmed the team that made such a good impression in Argentina, with a deluxe addition: the right winger Bruno Conti. In the first three games, players seemed to do their best to add fuel to the fire: Italy got colourless draws with Poland, Peru and Cameroon. They qualified for the next stage only due to a superior goal difference to the African side. Paolo Rossi was like a phantom on the pitch, but despite that Bearzot insisted on deploying him in the starting eleven. At that point, the team took an odd decision: they entered a “silenzio stampa”.


No meeting with journalists, no interviews: only the captain Dino Zoff could talk to the press, but for essentials information only. Adopting a siege mentality worked. When everybody would have bet against Italy, the Azzurri improved their performances. In the “group of death” against Brazil and Argentina, Italy got two amazing wins: 2-1 against Argentina (Gentile's man marking on Maradona was memorable) and a legendary 3-2 against a magnificent Brazil (who had players like Zico, Cerezo, Falcao and Socrates in the starting eleven) thanks to a hat trick by Paolo Rossi, who finally reached his maximum. Bearzot was vindicated. The semifinal against Poland (missing their star, Zibì Boniek, who was suspended) was another triumphal day for Paolo Rossi as he sent Italy into the final with a wonderful double. Twelve years from 1970, Italy was a World Cup finalist again. Their opponent was West Germany, another side that critics didn't consider as a favourite. The game was dominated by Italy, who could even afford to miss a penalty in the first half before scoring three second half goals, scored by Rossi (top goalscorer of Spain '82 with 6 goals), Tardelli and Altobelli. Breitner was the only German to find the net, achieving an enviable record: scoring in two different World Cup finals, 1974 and 1982. The Spain '82 victory was as beautiful as it was unexpected. After that World Cup, Italian football returned to the high level it deserved after a very difficult decade. For Italian clubs, a Golden Age was about to start.



Paolo Rossi, 1956, 48 caps and 20 goals for Italy. World champion in 1982.  Rossi and the 1982 World Cup, a thread impossible to break. Pablito (a nickname he received during Argentina '78) never became the icon of any club in particular, he achieved glory wearing the Azzurro jersey. When he was a youngster, Juventus signed and loaned him to Como and Vicenza allowing him to get minutes and rehabilitate from a series of injuries. He started his career as a winger until Edmondo Fabbri, his coach and mentor at Vicenza, started deploying him as a forward. The outcome was impressive as Rossi scored 60 goals in 94 Serie A games. He wasn't overly technically gifted but he was smart, swift and opportunistic. He scored 13 more goals with Perugia convincing Juventus to reacquire him.


But the love-story between Pablito and the Bianconeri never blossomed. Two Italian titles, one European Cup, one Cup Winners' Cup and a UEFA Supercup weren't enough to find his way into fans' hearts. They never forgave his controversy with the club when asking for a pay raise after Spain '82. He said “I want to raise my children with a fair wage”, and that infuriated the fans and the management. The worst chapter of his career was the ban for the match-fixing scandal in 1980, the notorious Calcioscommesse. He allegedly fixed an Avellino-Perugia match while he was a Perugia player. Rossi admitted he was approached by the fixers, but he always said he rejected their proposals. But the game ended in a draw, exactly what the fixers wanted. Rossi missed two entire seasons due to a long suspension. Enzo Bearzot decided – against everyone's opinion – to call him for Spain '82 although he only played three games in the 1981-82 season. That call changed Rossi's life forever; if he hadn't gone to the World Cup his career would have fallen into oblivion. Instead, Rossi's hat trick made the Brazilians cry and his goals were crucial to Italy winning their third World Cup. Rossi was the top goalscorer at Spain '82 and in the following winter he raised the Ballon d'Or to the sky. He was only the second Italian player to win the most important individual trophy, after Gianni Rivera.


Dino Zoff, 1942, 112 caps for Italy. World champion in 1982. The first Italian player to raise the 1982 World Cup – as a captain – was the goalkeeper Dino Zoff. One of the finest goalkeepers in football history, Zoff was defined as a “modern” exponent of the role. Positioning was his best skill: he didn't need spectacular dives as he always was in the right place at the right moment. Zoff is a recordman. He holds many, he's still the oldest world champion ever (he was 40 years and 134 days old that 11th July in 1982). In that squad, Beppe Bergomi, born 21 years after Zoff, could have been his son. Zoff is the only Italian player to win both a European Championship (1968) and a World Cup (1982); he played continually for 11 seasons without missing a single game at Juventus. His playing style matched his personality: quiet and reserved, the opposite of the Italian cliche. In the 1982 World Cup, Zoff was the undisputed king of the Italian goal. In the famous win against Brazil, he saved a certain goal just on the line from a Paulo Isidoro's header. It was the 90th minute and Zoff saved Italy from elimination: a draw would have qualified the South Americans. Then came the glory; Zoff raising the Cup to the sky is an icon that was even impressed on a stamp (and on 1982-83's Panini album cover). After starting at Udinese and Mantova, Zoff played with Napoli for five years before signing for Juventus. He was then 30: at this age, many players start thinking about their “next life”, but SuperDino's career was just halfway. And the best was yet to come: he still had 6 Italian titles, 2 Coppa Italia and one UEFA Cup to win.


Bruno Conti, 1955, 47 caps and 5 goals for Italy. World champion in 1982. Pelé said about him: “He is the most Brazilian player among Italians”. Thanks to his creativity and his “futbol bailado”, Bruno Conti would not look out of place in the Brazilian national team. But he was Italian, and he was the best addition for the Azzurri after a good World Cup in 1978, which then won in 1982. Bruno Conti was an immensely gifted right winger, his technique was uncommonly good. His dribbling and speed made him one of the best wingers of the 70s and 80s. Aside from two seasons on loan at Genoa, Conti played all of his career in Roma's jersey and was a key player for the 1982-83 Italian title. Nils Liedholm was the first to glimpse Conti's huge potential and he gave him many minutes in the 1976-77 season when Conti was 21. That was the start of a winning career as “MaraZico” won – aside fom the Scudetto – the World Cup and 4 Coppa Italia. In the Nazionale, Conti was the successor of Franco Causio and was one of Bearzot's favourites. Conti told an anecdote that shows that good relationship: “Before the World Cup I had a knee injuy. Bearzot noticed that I was stressed as I wanted to rehabilitate as soon as possible. He called me and said: “No rush, Bruno: you have a place in starting eleven and no one will steal it”. I felt so relieved and I really wanted to reward him with the World Cup”. After the triumphal 1982, Conti took part in the 1986 campaign in Argentina.


Paulo Roberto Falcao, 1953, 28 caps and 4 goals for Brazil. Another protagonist of the 1982 World Cup was a Serie A player. He played in a great Brazilian side (although one that lacked a top striker) in the Spanish edition. In 1980, Italy opened up to foreign players once again after the ban imposed after Italy's flop in the 1966 World Cup. Paulo Roberto Falcao was one of the first pioneers of the repopulation. Roma bought him from Internacional de Porto Alegre. Although he won three Brazilian titles there and was a leader, no one really knew him in Italy. Roma fans started to suspect that he was a great player when they saw Internacional's torcida despairing for his departure and contesting their president.


If Conti was the the most Brazilian among Italians, Falcao was probably the least Brazilian among Brazilians. Firstly, he was blond, unlike the majority of Brazilian players. He was the opposite of a lazy South American genius, he was continually on the move, he didn't like fancy footwork, backheels and dribbles. Actually, Falcao was an astonishing exponent of a typical Brazilian role: the “volante”. Volantes are playmakers who play ahead of the defensive line, players capable to defend and attack with the same effectiveness. What the Spanish call a “todocampista”. A brief story perfectly illustrates what Falcao thought about histrionics. A few minutes before his debut game for Roma in a friendly match (against his former team), Roma's president Dino Viola asked him to show something “Brazilian” to his new fans, something that could impress them. Some minutes before the end of that game, Falcao controlled the ball with his backheel, passed an opponent with a “sombrero” and shot a powerful volley and the ball flew just wide of the post. The crowd went crazy but Falcao wore a pout on his face and in the changing room he said to Viola: “I did it. But please don't ask me for something similar again. I'm not a performing seal, I'm a professional footballer”.


For Roma, Falcao represented a breakthrough both in the quality of play and in winning attitude. He was the metronome, but he also helped in the defensive phase and his offensive raids were often crucial (he scored 22 goals in Serie A). Falcao was renamed “il Divino” (the Divine) and “l'ottavo re di Roma” (the eighth king of Rome) and he was revered almost like a God in Rome. On a 1984 spring night - the European Cup final -, something broke in that magic relationship. Roma lost the final on penalty kicks against Liverpool. That night, Falcao didn't take his penalty, for reasons that are still unknown. Some months later, Falcao left Roma after a long economic “arm wrestling” with president Dino Viola. But although such a distressing farewell and the bad European chapter, Roma fans don't have any doubt: Falcao is still “il Divino”.

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