Paolo Rossi exuded class on and off the field


Paolo Rossi celebrates after scoring the opening goal against Poland in the semifinals of the 1982 World Cup. (Bob Thomas/Getty)

The interview lasted all of 10 minutes, and it was all I could do to keep myself from lunging over the table and hugging the person on the other side.

One of the perks of being a sports reporter is that you occasionally come face-to-face with one of your childhood idols. It happened to me a few weeks ago when I met Paolo Rossi.

Rossi was not my favourite player on Italy’s World Cup winning team from 1982—Claudio Gentile and Gaetano Scirea were. As I kid playing house league soccer I compensated for my lack of speed by being a tough tackler and by roughing up opposing forwards, in the mould of Gentile. I aspired to be like Scirea, an elegant defender who was comfortable in possession and could play himself out of trouble.

Still, it was Rossi who I emulated in pickup games in the schoolyard and on the street outside my house. Growing up I wore my Italian heritage on my sleeve. I was proud of my parents’ background. And nothing symbolized the pride I felt in my “Italian-ness” more than Rossi. My friends and schoolmates didn’t know anything about Italy—but they knew Paolo Rossi.

So it was with giddy excitement that I learned he’d be in Toronto last month to promote an Italian legends game with which he’s involved, and would talk to reporters before a Toronto FC game.

“He’s late,” a colleague said to me when Rossi didn’t show up at the pre-arranged time.

“When you score six goals in one World Cup, you can show up whenever you damn well feel like it,” I shot back.

Moments later he walked through the door. No entourage. No attitude. No cockiness. Dressed simply. He sat down, offered a warm greeting and began fielding questions.

I should have been paying attention to his answers. But I was daydreaming, my thoughts turning back to 1982 in Barcelona, where Rossi scored a hat trick against Brazil, supposedly the best team of all time, in the single greatest World Cup game in history. And how he bagged a brace against Poland in the semifinals, and how he opening the scoring against West Germany in Madrid, helping Italy win the final and claim its third World Cup title.

Quickly, I regained my focus, and started listening to Rossi before getting to ask him about his finest moment.

Much like Paul Henderson with his goal against the Soviet Union in 1972, not a day goes by when Rossi isn’t asked about the 1982 World Cup, and specifically his hat trick that sunk a Brazil team that featured Zico, Socrates and Falcao.

Rossi, of course, had a pretty distinguished club career, winning two Italian league titles and a European Cup with Juventus. He also claimed the Ballon d’Or in 1982 as the European player of the year.

But it’s about the World Cup in Spain and that game against Brazil that people inevitably ask him about.

“Do you ever get tired of talking about it?” I ask.

“No! No! No!” he insists, as though such a suggestion is heresy.

“It was harder to deal with when I was still playing because after that World Cup my life was very difficult—the interest was very overwhelming. Now, it’s something I can manage. I’ll always fondly remember 1982. I’m humbled that it still registers with people to this day,” he said.

Never meet your heroes because you’ll only be disappointed. That’s what I’ve been told by colleagues who, in their case, had the misfortune of meeting their sports idols, only to find out that they were jerks in real life.

What I found in Rossi was a soft-spoken and humble man who carries himself with a great deal of grace, dignity and self-deprecation. What also impressed me was his profound love of the greatest game on earth.

As an eight year old, Rossi meant the world to me. But I couldn’t care less what type of person he was. He scored six goals in Spain. That’s all that mattered to me at the time.

Thirty-three years later, it was lovely to discover that Paolo Rossi the man is every bit as classy as Paolo Rossi the player.

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