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‘Inspired a generation’: Italy’s 1982 World Cup hero Paolo Rossi dies aged 64

Milan (AFP) – Paolo Rossi, who fired Italy to victory in the 1982 World Cup after almost missing the tournament through a match-fixing scandal, has died aged 64, prompting an outpouring of grief and tributes.

Rossi’s wife Federica Cappelletti announced the death in an Instagram post featuring a photo of the couple, accompanied by the comment “Forever,” followed by a heart.

She did not disclose the cause of his death.

“He didn’t want to go, I hugged him tightly and told him ‘Paolo, now go, you have suffered too much’,” Cappelletti told journalists on Thursday outside Le Scotte Hospital in Siena where he passed away. 

“It is not easy to summarise in a few words all that Paolo was,” she continued.

“A unique person, full of optimism even in the most difficult moments, a great person but at the same time simple. 

“He knew how to talk in the same way with Heads of State but also with the people we met at the supermarket. 

“This was Paolo and this was his greatness.”

Rossi’s funeral will take place in his adopted city of Vicenza, in northeastern Italy, with his ashes returned to his native Tuscany, Cappelletti added.

Tributes flooded in for ‘Pablito’, who was banned for three years for his part in the betting scandal, but returned to win the World Cup in Spain where he was the top scorer with six goals, and the Ballon d’Or the same year.

Goalkeeper Dino Zoff, who captained the 1982 winning side, described Rossi as an “extraordinary footballer, excellent teammate and friend”.

He said Rossi’s ban — later reduced to two years — did not bother him, as “we knew who Paolo Rossi was, what a serious person he was and what an extraordinary footballer we had with us”. 

“He was irreplaceable in that group. And the relationship with him was great. We were a team of friends, a great group,” Zoff said.

Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte paid tribute to an “unforgettable champion”, saying that his goals that summer “gave a dream to an entire generation”.

“You will always remain our hero. Ciao Pablito,” Juventus coach Andrea Pirlo, on the team which lifted Italy’s fourth World Cup title in 2006, wrote on Twitter.

– Bribery scandal –

Rossi won the hearts of Italian fans when his goals propelled Enzo Bearzot’s Azzurri — who started the tournament with three uninspiring draws — to a third world title.

But he almost missed the whole tournament.

In 1980, he was caught up in match-fixing scandal known as “Totonero” — a play on the Italian for football pools — that also led to top teams including AC Milan and Lazio being relegated.

After protesting his innocence he was cleared to play again and was rehired by Juventus, going on to earn his spot in the World Cup squad.

A slight winger who converted to centre-forward, Rossi had an uncanny ability to be in the right place at the right time.

He exploded onto the stage of the 1982 tournament with a hat-trick in the 3-2 defeat of Brazil.

In the semi-finals he scored both goals as Italy beat Poland 2-0, and he hit the opening goal in the 3-1 win over West Germany in the final.

Along with Christian Vieri and Roberto Baggio, Rossi holds the Italian record for nine goals scored in the World Cup.

– Formidable Juve trio –

Born in Prato in Tuscany, Rossi made his professional debut at Juventus in 1973, but his initial two-year spell at the Turin club was blighted by knee injuries.

His first successes were with Vicenza,  helping the club into the top flight. However, following relegation he left for a loan spell at Perugia, where scandal struck.

After his suspension Rossi returned to Juventus, and the 1983-1984 season was his most successful at club level.

He formed a formidable trio with Michel Platini and Zbigniew Boniek and accumulated trophies — two Serie A titles, the Italian Cup, Cup of Cups, and European Supercup. 

“Paolo was a friend, a golden boy: benevolent, humble and intelligent,” Platini said in a statement to AFP. 

“He will be forever remembered by the (Juventus) team and everyone with a black and white heart.”

In 1985, Juventus won the European Cup amid the tragedy of the Heysel Stadium final against Liverpool, where 39 fans were killed. It was to be Rossi’s last match with the ‘Bianconeri’.

He went to rivals AC Milan for an unsuccessful season which was overshadowed by injury, as was his final year at Hellas Verona. 

In 1987, aged 31, Rossi decided to turn the page after nearly 400 league games and 154 goals, and 48 caps and 20 goals for Italy.

A father of three children, Rossi later worked as a TV pundit. 

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