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Soccer-The day Paolo Rossi changed Brazilian football for good

(Reuters) - Italians knew him affectionately as “Pablito”. In Brazil, he was known as the executioner.

Diego Maradona and Paolo Rossi pose for a photo as they attend the Italian football hall of fame awards ceremony in Florence, Italy, January 17, 2017. Picture taken January 17, 2017. REUTERS/Jennifer Lorenzini

Paolo Rossi, the former Italy striker who died aged 64 on Thursday, is seen in his homeland as the hero who led a previously discredited team to their 1982 World Cup title.

Brazilians remember him almost as well, for inflicting a defeat which became known as the Sarria Tragedy and which many feel changed the country’s football for good.

Rossi was the main protagonist in one of the best World Cup matches ever played -- Italy’s 3-2 win over Brazil in a second round match at the Sarria stadium.

Brazil had delighted the world, playing with apparently careless abandon as they won their opening four matches with a goal aggregate of 13-3. Many regard the team, coached by Tele Santana, as the finest the country has ever produced.

Italy had crawled through the first group stage with draws against Peru, Poland and Cameroon before a surprising 2-1 win over Argentina.

Rossi, frail-looking and apparently out of shape, had just returned from a two-year ban linked to a match-fixing scandal and performed dismally until that point.

It was an epic match and clearly belonged to a very different era, from the classic strips, to the blaring horns, the stifling heat and the ramshackle Sarria stadium in Barcelona.

There was much criticism of using the Sarria -- long since demolished -- for the World Cup, but its steeply-rising stands, packed with flag-waving fans added to the drama.

Brazil needed a draw to reach the semi-finals from the second group stage but fell behind after five minutes as woeful defending allowed Rossi a free header from Antonio Cabrini’s cross.

The South Americans levelled seven minutes later with a goal which BBC commentator John Motson said “sums up the philosophy of Brazilian football.”

Socrates played the ball to Zico, who slipped between two defenders with a backheel and then threaded a pass back to Socrates.

The “Doctor” strode through in his inimitably effortless style and scored with a shot between Italy goalkeeper Dino Zoff and the near post, the ball kicking up a puff of dust as it crossed the line to produce another evocative image.

That should have set up Brazil for a comfortable win but, after 25 minutes, Toninho Cerezo’s sideways pass was intercepted by Rossi who ran on to fire Italy back in front.

Falcao levelled for Brazil after the break but, once again, Rossi scored, this time turning the ball in from point-blank range after being left unmarked at a corner.


Many Brazilians have argued that the defeat caused a profound and permanent shift in their game, towards a more defensive style of football with a European influence.

Certainly, during the 1990s Brazilian domestic football became incredibly aggressive, with upto 50 or 60 fouls per match.

“If we had won that game, football would have been different. Instead, we started to create football based on getting the result at whatever cost, football based on breaking up the opposition’s move, of fouling,” Zico once said.

Others have argued that Brazil were simply naive, fielding four creative midfielders, a winger and a striker, a style which would not have survived in any case.

In a joint interview with Zico two years ago, Rossi recalled how, on his first visit to Brazil in 1989, he was ordered out of a taxi when the driver recognised him. But that was an exception.

“Actually, I have a lot Brazilian friends and there is a lot of affection, of respect,” he said. “They don’t just see me as the player who once scored three goals against Brazil, there is more to it than that.”

“What makes me proud is that we beat not just Brazil, but that Brazil... the 1982 team, an extraordinary team of incredible champions.”

Writing by Brian Homewood; Editing by Toby Davis