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How Rossi and Bearzot revolutionized Italy for the 1982 World Cup

1982 World Cup

The triumph of Paolo Rossi and Enzo Bearzot at the 1982 World Cup is underrated amongst the competition’s lore.

The late Italian manager Enzo Bearzot pioneered ‘total football’ from Ajax. He steered Italians away from the Catenaccio, or ‘door-bolt,’ defensive strategy. That tactic led to the emergence of Italian soccer during the 1960s. This defensive blockade which suppresses opponents’ opportunities led to success. A win at Euro 1968 preceded a runner-up finish to Brazil at Mexico 1970.

However, the Azzurri learned hard that defense was a temporary means to an end. This is particularly true if the opponent is technically gifted, as seen with Brazil’s comfortable win in the Final at the Estadio Azteca.

Throughout three-consecutive World Cups, Bearzot implemented his take on the Dutch system. His change worked wonders as the head coach of the Azzurri.

The Triumph of the 1982 World Cup

In 1978, the Italians made it to the semifinals. Rather than switching up the plan, Bearzot doubled down on his formula. Bringing momentum into Spain 1982, Italy entered as contenders.

Yet, the Azzurri developed a reputation as slow starters. Three draws in three ‘Group 1’ games almost knocked out the Italians early on. The only thing saving them was more goals scored than Cameroon, which also picked up three draws in that group. Critics harangued Enzo Bearzot for average results, particularly after adopting a strategy that promised spontaneity. In essence, players had multiple roles that fluctuated between offense and defense. Moreover, forwards had the role of quickly winning back possession in the final third if they lost it.

The wise manager understood that patience was the key to proving his depth of vision. Therefore, Enzo Bearzot and his pliant players disregarded the punditocracy accusing Italy of sluggish play. Instead, they focused on the overall objective: winning the World Cup.

Paolo Rossi shines

That objective came in the form of a mountain to climb. Back then, FIFA did not use a traditional knockout stage. The 1982 FIFA World Cup had a second group stage. There, Italy met up against the defending champions, Argentina, and the tournament favorites, Brazil.

After defeating Argentina in the first of its two second-stage games, Italy met Brazil for a spot in the semifinals. Here, Paolo Rossi left his mark on Brazil forever. His hat trick helped Italy to defeat the Seleção 3-2. Brazilian historians recall this game as the ‘Tragédia do Sarrià‘, or the Sarrià Tragedy, given the game happened in Barcelona at Sarrià Stadium.

The win sent Italy into the semifinals, where it faced an upstart Poland. Rossi’s brace, his fourth and fifth goals in two games, secured a shutout win against Poland. Rossi carried Italy through the second and third rounds of the tournament. Now, Italy sat on the verge of winning its third World Cup.

In the Final, Rossi scored the opener. Chance creator Marco Tardelli added a second and Alessandro Altobelli added a third late on. By the time Germany scored its first goal in the 83rd minute, the fixture was all but finished. A decades-long spell seemed ripe for an end.

However, this does not come without controversy.

Photo by Peter Robinson – PA Images via Getty Images

Match Fixing/Suspension

That suspicion is nothing new for Italian soccer. Serie A and Serie B have a scandalous history with organized crime. Even Paolo Rossi entered the 1982 World Cup coming off a two-year suspension for gambling involving Serie A.

Yet, Bearzot received praise as a genius for selecting Rossi given that, before the tournament, Italian cognoscenti criticized the return of the striker.

Rossi’s ‘Totonero’ scandal of the 1980 Serie A season allegedly involved Paolo Rossi, who played for Perugia. However, Paolo Rossi denied his involvement with ‘Totonero,’ as the forward barely performed for Perugia that season, on loan from Vicenza. The match-fixing scandal had a widespread effect on Italian soccer, highlighted by the star striker’s absence from the World Cup. See, the original suspension for Rossi lasted three years. However, upon appeal, he could return to action just months before the World Cup started.

After serving his two-season suspension, the Bearzot called up the Italian No. 20. From antihero to hero, Paolo Rossi gained redemption and adopted the nickname, ‘Bullfighter.’

History Repeats

History has shown that Italy wins after falling in bad times. Moreover, the Azzurri has a trend of winning the World Cup after facing inveterate gambling accusations. For example, in the Serie A 2005/06 season, Juventus were involved in the infamous ‘Calciopoli’ match-fixing scandal, including Fiorentina, Lazio, and Milan. Amid the accusations, Fabio Cannavaro would win the ‘Ballon d’Or’ with Juve and World Cup with Italy.

Twenty-four years before ‘Calciopoli,’ Paolo Rossi gained the same accolades with the same teams after enduring the consequences of ‘Totonero.’ Though Rossi played for Perugia amid the scandal, the No. 20 won the Scudetto with Juve in 1982. And though Cannavaro played for Real Madrid after Juve’s relegation, he finished the 2005/06 season with I Bianconeri – a Serie A club that was deeply involved with Italy’s past two World Cup championships.

After all the repercussions, Paolo Rossi gained redemption and won the Scudetto, FIFA World Cup, Golden Ball, Golden Boot, and Ballon d’Or in 1982.

Finally, The Bullfighter did it his way – skipping the vaunted No. 10 and becoming the first player to bring popularity to No. 20.

PHOTO: Mark Leech/Offside/Getty Images

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Buckles

    August 16, 2022 at 2:47 am

    That was a great and entertaining World Cup. I still remember watching that final game (Italy v West Germany) on ABC. And ABC using one of the goals on their intro to Wide World Of Sports for many years. Even tho WC 86 was a down year for Italy, I really thought they should have won Italia 90 four years later. Think about how close Italy came in 1990,1994,1998 and 2002 to winning those cups.
    Since winning in 2006, the following World Cup and qualifying campaigns have been disasters.
    At least they won the Euros last year.

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