Italy World Cup Rewind: Paolo Rossi Silences His Critics, 1982

Sam LoprestiFeatured ColumnistApril 25, 2014

Paolo Rossi celebrates one of his three goals in the critical second-round decider against Brazil at the 1982 World Cup.
Paolo Rossi celebrates one of his three goals in the critical second-round decider against Brazil at the 1982 World Cup.Associated Press

Welcome back to Bleacher Report's series of Italy World Cup Rewinds.  Over the last few months we've been looking at the best and the worst of Italy's history in world soccer's showpiece event.  

Today, we look at the game that sent the Azzurri catapulting to their first World Cup title in 44 years—and that legitimized both Italian soccer and forward Paolo Rossi after a major betting scandal.  The finale of the second group stage of the 1982 World Cup is our destination today.  Let's enjoy the ride.


The Tournament

The mid-1970s and early 1980s saw FIFA devise some bizarre formats for the World Cup.  The format for 1982 has (mercifully) never been repeated.

The newly expanded field of 24 teams was drawn into six four-team groups.  The winners and runners-up from each group were then divided into four groups of three teams each.  The winners of those four groups would then qualify for the semifinals.

Some familiar flags were conspicuously absent from the competition in 1982.  The Netherlands, runners-up two times running, finished fourth in their qualifying group behind Belgium, France and Ireland.  The 1981 round-robin CONCACAF Championship—which doubled as the region's qualifying tournament—saw Mexico, the kings of the region at the time, draw the final game of the competition to champions Honduras, allowing El Salvador to qualify.

CONMEBOL divided into three groups of three who determine who would accompany Argentina—automatic qualifiers as defending champions—to the tournament in Spain.  The winners of the groups were Brazil, Chile and Peru.

The Italians arrived in Spain on the back of controversy.
The Italians arrived in Spain on the back of controversy.CARLO FUMAGALLI

Africa played a knockout tournament to determine their two representatives.  After four two-legged rounds, Algeria and Cameroon defeated Nigeria and Morocco, respectively, by identical 4-1 aggregates.

Asia and Oceania were still grouped into one qualification zone in 1982.  After several preliminary groupings, a final group of four was formed, with the top two teams making the tournament.  Kuwait won the group by two points, but China and New Zealand found themselves tied on both points and goal difference after six games.  A playoff was held on neutral ground in Singapore; New Zealand took the game 2-1 and qualified for their first World Cup.

It was a particularly successful qualifying run for the Home Nations.  Scotland qualified for the third straight tournament, Northern Ireland qualified for the second time and England qualified for the first time in 12 years.  

There was, however, consideration for the three teams to withdraw from the tournament altogether when the United Kingdom locked horns with Argentina in the Falklands War.  Once it became clear that withdrawal could become a propaganda coup for the Argentinians, the three British teams were allowed by their government to participate.


The Run-up

Hopes were high for Italy after their run to the 1970 final.  They were defending European champions and had re-established themselves as a power internationally.  It was disappointing to fail to qualify for the 1972 European Championship, but given that the tournament consisted of only four teams at the time it was by no means a humiliation.  Less forgivable was their failure to make it out of a favorable group in the 1974 World Cup, a blow that cost Ferruccio Valcareggi his job.

After a year under Fulvio Bernardini, the Azzurri were taken over by Enzo Bearzot in 1975.  Bearzot led the team to fourth-place finishes in the World Cup in 1978 and the European Championship two years later, but the Italians were far from favorites heading into the tournament in Spain.

Two years earlier, a match-fixing scandal known as "Totonero" (literally: black bets) rocked the Serie A.  Two Roman business owners—Alvaro Trinca and Massimo Cruciano—were found to have paid more than 30 players to throw matches in order for them to make money off clandestine bets.

After the operation—which was inefficient at its best moments—placed Trinca and Cruciano in severe financial shape and an attempt at blackmailing FIGC failed, the two revealed their actions to the media on March 1, 1980.  Three weeks later 11 players and club officials were arrested during half-time of matches all across the country.

Because there were no laws on the books to cover sporting fraud at the time (nor would there be until 1989) no one ever faced criminal punishment for being part of the the fixing ring.  

FIGC, however, meted out some serious punishment.  AC Milan and Lazio were forcibly relegated from Serie A and five other teams—three in Serie A and two in Serie B—were given five-point deductions.  

In addition, no fewer than 20 players were given suspensions ranging from three months to six years.  One of these players was Paolo Rossi, who was originally suspended for three years and had that reduced to two on appeal.

Claudio Gentile (No. 6) kept Maradona at bay in the first game of the second round with ruthless man-marking.
Claudio Gentile (No. 6) kept Maradona at bay in the first game of the second round with ruthless man-marking.Associated Press

This allowed him to be eligible for the World Cup, but Bearzot was derided for bringing him to Spain.  He was, the public said, in bad shape and far out of practice.

Italy's first three games made Rossi's detractors even more bullish.  The striker was misfiring badly, and the Italians played uninspired draws of 0-0 (against Poland) and 1-1 (against Peru and Cameroon) in their three first-round games.  Tied on three points with Cameroon, the Azzurri advanced as runners-up only because they had scored more goals than the Indomitable Lions.

When the Azzurri were grouped with Argentina and Brazil, most expected a meek exit.  Instead, the group opener against Argentina turned into an ill-tempered, defensive contest.  

Claudio Gentile and Gaetano Scirea proved equal to the high-flying Argentine attack.  Gentile in particular made himself an instant legend for man-marking World Cup hero Diego Maradona and keeping him off the scoresheet.  Marco Tardelli and Antonio Cabrini scored in the 57th and 67th minutes, respectively, and all the Argentines could muster was a consolation goal seven minutes from time.

When Brazil crushed Argentina 3-1 three days later, the Italians knew that they would have to win their game against Brazil on July 5 in order to advance to the semis.  Anything less would see the Selecao go through on goal difference.


The Game

Both teams stepped onto the field at the Estadio de Sarria in Barcelona in their traditional kits.  Italy wore Savoy blue shirts with white shorts, the Brazilians yellow shirts with blue shorts.  The referee was Abraham Klein of Israel, who was universally considered the one of the very best international referees of the day.

Brazil were heavy favorites.  Packing the likes of Socrates, Zico and Falcao—who ironically played for Roma in Serie A—the team was easily the more talented of the two.  Italy, however, were far more tactically sound and a much more cohesive unit.  It was flamboyant attack against organized defense.

The Italians shocked everyone by going in front within five minutes.  Antonio Cabrini sent in an early cross that looked intended for Francesco Graziani but sailed over his head—and right into the path of an onrushing Rossi, who had ghosted in behind the Brazilian back line for a free header.

Brazil immediately sprang onto the offensive in order to get the goal back.  With Gentile assigned to man-mark Zico the same way he had Maradona, the Brazilians had to look elsewhere for their firepower.  When Italy's defense made a hash of a tackle in front of their box, Serginho flashed a shot wide of goalkeeper Dino Zoff's far post.

Seven minutes after Rossi's opener, Zico managed to turn away from Gentile and fire a through ball for Socrates, who squeezed the ball past Zoff from three yards and an absurdly acute angle to tie the score.  It was, as the commentator in the accompanying highlight video said, "a goal that sums up the philosophy of Brazilian football."

Had they been able to hold the result they would have been through, but instead a serious error in the back saw Italy go in front again.  Toninho Cerezo's lazy attempt at a lateral pass was pounced on by Rossi, who charged into the open space in front of him and unleashed a powerful shot from the penalty arc that ripped into the net.

The Brazilians again threw themselves into the attack.  A long cross into the Italian box produced another chance for Socrates, but his low header was straight at Zoff, and the Juve man stopped the attempt easily.  More chances came, but the Italians resolutely held on to their advantage at the half.

Rossi heads home his opener.
Rossi heads home his opener.Associated Press

In the second half it was more of the same.  Zico, who had seen much less of the ball thanks to the close attention of Gentile, took advantage of a swath of space after receiving the ball in his own half and picked out Cerezo, who had marauded through the center of Brazil's forward line.  The 40-year-old Zoff anticipated the pass and slid into the challenge at the edge of his box, swatting the ball forward before the defender had the chance to pose any serious threat to the goal.

Not long after, a ball over the top from Junior was flicked on by Cerezo toward Serginho.  The Brazilian dueled with substitute Giuseppe Bergomi and then beat him to the loose ball that followed.  Three yards away with his back to the goal, Serginho tried to back-heel it into the net but was prevented from making contact by a sliding challenge from Zoff.  

The Italians turned the clearance into a dangerous counterattack, with Graziani finding Rossi one-on-one with Brazilian goalkeeper Waldir Peres in the box.  Peres closed the angle enough that Rossi pulled it wide of the near post, missing a game-clinching opportunity in agonizing fashion.

Junior put a ball over the top to the hard-working Cerezo, who blasted the ball into the side netting from the corner of the six-yard box.

The Selecao finally had their hard-earned equalizer in the 68th minute.  Junior started a long run from the left flank at the halfway line, cutting inside before finding an open Falcao at 21 yards out and slightly to the right.  Each Italian defender turned to mark another player expecting another to step up and challenge the Roma man.  In acres of space, Falcao dribbled to find a shooting lane and drilled the ball from 18 yards at almost dead center.

Zoff had no chance.  Brazil were, for the moment, bound for the semifinals again.

Brazil looked to seal the game, but Zico put a long-range shot comfortably over the bar.  Then, six minutes after putting themselves in position to advance, the Brazilians saw themselves looking up again.

It started when Peres made a hash out of a header sent back to him by one of his own players.  Late coming to claim it, the ball snuck over the end line for a corner kick.

Bergomi rose to meet the ensuing delivery but was thwarted by a pair of Brazilian markers.  The ball fell to Marco Tardelli, who aimed a weak shot toward the goal.  The ball rolled toward the six-yard box, where both Rossi and Graziani were waiting.  Both took aim, but Rossi was the one who connected with his third of the game.  

It was 3-2.  The shocker was back on.

Italy very nearly added to the score when Giancarlo Antognoni slotted home Gabriele Oriale's pass, but the assistant had his flag up.

Brazil had one last chance when Eder swung in a free kick from the left wing.  Defender Oscar met it with a powerful header.  Zoff got his palm to it and then scrambled toward the trickling ball, stopping it just before it went over the goal line.  Brazil's players waved their arms, insisting the ball had crossed, but referee Klein waved their protests away.  Replay proved this crucial call correct.

Not long after Klein blew his whistle.  Italy had pulled off one of the biggest shocks in World Cup history.  Having scraped their way through the first round, the Italians had managed to beat the two best teams in the world and book their place in the semifinals.


The Aftermath

The semifinal would pit Italy against Poland in a rematch from the first round.  The first match had been a dull goalless draw and had featured a lifeless Rossi.  This time the striker scored once in each half as the Italians—minus Gentile, who had been suspended for yellow card accumulation after the Brazil match—marched into the final.  That game will be covered in more detail in the next installment of this series.

In Brazil, the match became known as "A tragedia do Sarria"—the Tragedy of Sarria.  It marked a major defeat not only for the team but for the entire nation's philosophy of soccer.  Four years later they would bow out in the quarterfinals to France.

Referee Klein was the fourth official for the final in 1982 and was rumored to be set to officiate a replay of the match should it have been needed.


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