Paolo Rossi: God bless whoever invented football
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FIFA.com: Let's begin with the FIFA World Cup. What does the tournament evoke for you in general?
Paolo Rossi:
For me the World Cup is the ultimate objective for a professional player. It brought me fame, popularity and success, starting with my first World Cup in 1978, which was already a great success. I was 22. Italy didn't win the tournament, but my performances came in for a lot of significant praise. That's when my career really took off. Then, four years later, we were lucky enough to win it. For me, the World Cup represents the highest point for any professional. For a player, winning the World Cup really is the ultimate goal.

You were also in the team in 1986.
Yes, I played at three World Cups. In 1986 I was in the squad but never got off the bench. An odd thing for me was that the three World Cups I took part in were all in Spanish-speaking countries. The 1978 tournament was in Argentina, 1982 in Spain and 1986 in Mexico. That's quite curious.

Is the FIFA World Cup a great source of motivation?
Well, during the World Cup you need to stay focused for 40 to 50 days. During this time a player must be at his peak, both mentally and physically. Because it isn't just about him. Football is a team sport so everyone has to pull together. Everyone has to give their best. Which is why winning a World Cup is so difficult: having one or two players off form can be enough to spoil your chances. Everything is so intense. As a professional you know you have to be at your peak. Every game is a mixture of great excitement and great emotional stress, because every match will make history. It's a fantastic and wonderful event.

Everybody has their own way of preparing. When you know the FIFA World Cup is coming at the end of the season, are you conscious of it.
Of course, every player starts to prepare himself way before the kick off. It's such an important event that you begin thinking about it a long time before it actually takes place. Which is quite natural. Everyone knows the whole world will be watching so you want to make a good impression. It's a planetary event. I think the World Cup and the Olympics are the two most important events in sport. I think the World Cup has a bigger following though. It's the only sport that captivates the whole world. The whole world stops for forty days while the tournament is on.

Did football evolve over the three FIFA World Cups you played in? Did you notice any improvements?
There was a definite improvement between my first and second World Cups. Not just the game itself but in the overall organisation. Things changed, they got better. When I look back at my first World Cup in 1978, there have been changes. Football has changed, the way it is broadcast has changed, the way it is organized. I think football has improved a lot.

You scored three goals and set up two more in 1978.
Yes, in Argentina I did score three goals, the first one against France. That was the opening match. I didn't think I'd get to play at all. Bearzot included me in the team at the last minute, probably because he thought I was on form. It was fabulous to be able to play. Maybe we could have done slightly better as a team. We could even have reached the Final, but we lost out in a crazy semi-final against the Netherlands. The team we had in 1978 was really great though.

You made a name for yourself in Argentina.
Yes. It was in Argentina that I really burst onto the scene.

And you earned the nickname Pablito.
Yes, the nickname was coined by the Il Gazzettino journalist, Giorgio Rago, who has unfortunately now passed away. It stuck throughout my career. Which was fine by me because I like it. Even today people I meet in the street call me Pablito.

Did you think when you won the silver shoe in 1978 that you had reached your peak or did you feel your best was still to come?
I thought the best was still to come. When the tournament ended I was satisfied but not entirely so. Every player wants to win something important. We went home empty handed. In 1978 we planted the seeds and in 1982 we reaped the rewards. Four years later we had a lot of 1978 veterans still in the side: Zoff, Tardelli, Gentile, Scirea, Cabrini. We had new talent too: Altobelli, Graziani and three or four others, but the backbone of the team was still the same.

Let's talk about your goal against France, when the ball came off the post. Was this a good example of your opportunism and eye for goal?
Without a doubt. The 1978 game against France was a good example of my ability to pounce on a half chance. My strong point was always anticipating where the ball was going. Physically, I couldn't compete with bulky defenders so I used my speed and goal sense. This is something you either have or you don't. It's not the sort of thing you can learn. You have to be innately intuitive.

You fell on some tough times between the two FIFA World Cups. Was it Enzo Bearzot's faith in you that made the difference in 1982?
The fact that Bearzot trusted me was fundamental. Without a coach like Bearzot, we probably wouldn't be having this interview about our victory and how I became top scorer. Bearzot believed in me and was sure I would come through at the right time. When I started playing again after two years out it was really, really tough. And Bearzot's trust was very important. He was the coach, he picked the team. But the whole atmosphere was very important, as well as the support of my team-mates.

Even after the first four matches, when you failed to score?
Definitely. Even when I failed to score, I knew they still had faith in me. This is fundamental for a player. Because if you find yourself in an atmosphere where you feel that your team-mates and the coaching staff have lost faith in your abilities, it becomes difficult to perform. Instead, their attitude towards me was instrumental in what happened later on.

Did the press get to you?
The press, well, not really... I always had a good relationship with the papers. But I must say that I never really thought about it. I always just got on with my job regardless of what the papers said. I mean, when you play badly it's perfectly normal to draw criticism from the media. It's part of being a sportsman. I never worried about it. It's also true that when you come in for unjust criticism it can stimulate you to go out and do better. So harsh treatment in the press can sometimes have a positive outcome.

And suddenly against Brazil you scored three times. What had changed? Do you remember those goals?
In every player's career there are certain moments you simply never forget. This was one of them. The first goal was the most important one because it gave me back my confidence in every sense of the word. From that moment on it was as if someone up above was looking out for me.

The hand of God, Maradona might have said.
Yes, Maradona had the hand of God. In my case someone up there was watching over me. Everything suddenly changed. Nothing was going my way and then suddenly everything was going my way. It was suddenly all so easy. Such is the beauty of sport. A goal can change everything. It my case it changed my entire life.

How would you describe it? Was it a question of confidence?
Yes, it's a question of confidence. I was under so much pressure because everybody had such high expectations of me. Then when you don't deliver it's like you are in limbo. A goal, when it comes, is like manna from heaven for a striker. It gives you a whole new lease of life.

Even today, you still are the only player to have ever scored three goals against Brazil.
Yes, I think I read that somewhere. But it's not a statistic that interests me. What's important is we went on to win the World Cup.

Did your team-mates treat you differently after the Brazil game?
No. They just said: "Finally, a goal, about time!" It was the last World Cup with that bunch of players. A bunch of really great guys. We were great friends, very close to one another. There was tremendous sense of solidarity too. That was down to the coach. The atmosphere in the camp was great and it was a very talented squad of players. Guys who had won a lot of honours, five or six league titles and international titles too. That was all important. I was so lucky to be part of it all.

What do you remember best, your goals or the final whistle?
No, what really stays with me is seeing all the Italian flags in the stadium after the ref had blown the final whistle. That's what I'll always remember. Of course I remember the goals, all those great moments. But when I lifted my head and saw all those flags all over the stadium. I'm not a nationalist, but at moments like that you really feel like you belong to something. You belong to a group, to a nation. All these feelings come out. Seeing the stadium simply covered with Italian flags was an extraordinary moment, one I will remember forever.

Had Bearzot foreseen the outcome of the Final?
No, I don't think so. A coach can make plans but a match usually turns out differently. The victory against Brazil was important because it created a certain aura around us as a team. To the extent that the games after that seemed like mere formalities, even though they weren't. The Poland game seemed easy by comparison, the Germany game too. We felt like world beaters, nobody could touch us.

When you scored that goal, did you think about someone in particular?
No, I didn't think about anyone in particular. At times like that you are just glad to show your worth.

And was the moment when you received the FIFA World Cup Trophy a special moment in your life.
You bet. It was an indescribable joy. When you've been playing football all your life it's a dream come true. When you lift it... but you don't realize at the time, it takes a while to sink in. You are too wrapped up with the game and the tournament. With the passing of time you realise you've done something exceptional and most importantly you've made so many people very happy. The results in themselves are actually meaningless, the personal achievement. But knowing that all those people have gotten so much pleasure from what you have achieved brings a tremendous sense of inner joy.

I thought that goalscorers had to be innately selfish to be good at what they do?
No. Football is a team game. A goalscorer is nothing without his team-mates. Me in particular. I wasn't the type of player who could go it alone. I was the guy who finished off the move in the last six, five or two metres. But I needed someone to set me up. I couldn't do that myself. I always looked at football as a team sport, never from an individual point of view. I never saw scoring a goal as more important than winning as a team.

But sometimes you have to choose between passing and going it alone.
If my team-mate was in a better position than me I always passed him the ball. I was never a selfish footballer.

It's a decision you need to make in a fraction of a second.
Yes, in a fraction of a second. But that's how I played the game. If I was better positioned, I would finish myself, if you were better positioned, I would lay it off to you. That was my mindset. I wasn't selfish.

Seeing Sandro Pertini with tears in his eyes is something we all remember too.
Pertini's tears summed up how the whole nation felt. When a President gets involved in a game the way he did... He was an extraordinary person, a very sincere man. He wore his heart on his sleeve. Italians really identified with him, Italy's foremost representative. When we scored he reacted like a football fan not like a president. Presidents tend to be wooden, but he wasn't at all. He showed the way every Italian was feeling. Nobody can forget those images.

You went back to Italy with the President the next day.
Yes, we went back to Italy with the President, it was just magnificent. I don't exactly remember when we arrived home, but I do remember the unbelievable reception we received. From Ciampino Airport to the Quirinale Palace, where we went to dine with the President, I remember a continuous flood of people, all cheering in the streets. It was as if the war had ended. These are historical moments when everybody remembers if they were there or what they were doing at that time. There aren't many moments in life like that. Fabulous, wonderful memories. Moments of joy and happiness for everybody.

How do you explain people's fascination with football?
How can anyone explain football? When I meet people from other sports they often say "football is everywhere, it's the king of all sports". But I'm not the one who makes it so. People just love football. That's the way it is. God bless whoever invented football. It was the English, I think. And what a fantastic idea it was. A game where the team at the bottom of the table can beat the team at the top. You can score four goals in four minutes and upset all the odds. What other sport engenders as much excitement? Very few. I like other sports but what football stands for is just extraordinary.

Now, may I show you something (hands over the FIFA World Cup Trophy)?
Of course, wow!

It was made in Italy, by an Italian sculptor, Gazzaniga. They're renewing it for the second time, the first time was after President Pertini dropped it. Do you remember when you held it in your hands?
I took it in my hands and held it up in the air for about two or three minutes. What a feeling. Then the next day, on the airplane with Sandro Pertini, I held it close to me for half an hour. I was afraid it might be the last chance I had to hold it because it was getting passed around. It's such a beautiful trophy.

Yes, but you won other cups too didn't you?
Yes, I was lucky enough to win several domestic trophies. But this is beyond compare. The World Cup is the biggest prize of all.