Paolo Rossi smiled for the camera, his green eyes sparkling even though he could not understand a word the man with the microphone was saying. Then, when the interpreter finished his translation, Rossi laughed.
The TV man wanted to know if Rossi were interested in coming to the United States to play for the Cosmos. Rossi, a gentleman who has nothing but nice things to say about people, couldn't suppress the laugh.
"No, I don't think I'll do that," he said in Italian. "I'll play in Italy right now."
What the TV man didn't understand and what few Americans can understand, is that asking Rossi if he would be interested in playing in the North American Soccer League is about the same as asking Reggie Jackson if he would be interested in playing in an Italian softball league right after his three-home run game in the 1977 World Series.
Except that Rossi, after his six goals in the last three games of the World Cup, is more famous worldwide than Jackson ever dreamed of being.
Thus, the No. 1 athlete in the world is a 5-foot-8, 150-pound imp who has an indefinable talent for putting a soccer ball into the net. "What makes Rossi Rossi?" asked Franz Beckenbauer, the West German superstar, rhetorically. "Who knows? It's magic, a smell, something you can't see. He's just always there."
For Rossi, the last month has been magic. By now the story of his rise through the ranks of Italian soccer to his great crash during the bribery scandal of two years to his comeback in Spain is familiar.
He was a pro at age 15, a World Cup star in 1978 at age 21. Then, in 1980, maintaining his innocence all the way, he was suspended by the Italian Soccer Federation for three years for his alleged role in the bribery scandal. That suspension was conveniently lifted this past May and Italian Coach Enzo Bearzot immediately named him to the team he was taking to Spain for the World Cup.
In Italy's first four games, three of them unimpressive ties, Bearzot's faith that Rossi could regain his touch appeared foolish. Rossi's timing was off, he botched several easy chances. There was no magic.
Then, in the game that turned the tournament around, Rossi scored three goals to put Italy into the semifinals with a stunning 3-2 upset of the favorite, Brazil. He scored two more goals in the 2-0 semifinal victory over Poland and the first goal in the 3-1 win in the final over West Germany.
Suddenly, the exile was king.
"It has been the happiest time in my life," Rossi said in the locker room at Giants Stadium after playing in the World Cup All-Star game a week ago. "So much has been happening so fast I hardly know it. I had luck on my side finally. How else do I explain it?"
Now, Rossi has the entire world on his side. There is not an endorsement he cannot have, the money he can earn because of the World Cup seemingly limitless. When he came onto the field before the All-Star game it seemed as if the entire stadium were filled with cries of Raw-See, Raw-See. When he was introduced, the crowd wouldn't stop screaming. Each move he made on the field seemed magnified.
Does he feel pressure being watched that way?
"Oh yes," he said. "When you are at that level you are forced to give the best of yourself all the time. I like it. It is exciting for me to be thought of with the great champions of the game."
As Rossi stood crushed by media on all sides, Kevin Keegan, Great Britain's superb striker sat a few feet away, watching. "You can't even imagine what this kind of thing means to someone. Geoff Hurst scored three goals for us in 1966 and he's still talked about all the time.
"For the rest of his life, no matter what else he does, Rossi will be the man who scored six goals in three World Cup games. Period. What else can a soccer player want? It's just an extraordinary memory to keep with you."
Which raises the next question for Rossi: What does he do for an encore? He has dominated the event which dominates soccer and he is only 25-years-old.
"It is like the game itself, you must always go forward," Rossi said. "I want to play European Cup. I want to do well for Juventus (his club in Italy) I want to be able to give the best of myself for many more years."
And the World Cup?
The green eyes sparkled again. "I'd like to win three, maybe four more."
With his dark good looks and his irrepressible nature, Rossi might be just the person to do for the struggling NASL what Pele did for the league when he came here in 1975.
"He would be superb," said Beckenbauer, who may return to the Cosmos next year after two years in Germany. "He's at his peak now, not like some of us who came over when we had gotten older. But why would he want to come? Do you know what kind of money he would cost a club here?"
Considering that he was worth $3.4 million to an Italian club in 1977 before he had even played in one World Cup, the dollar figure would be staggering. Rossi will not play in the NASL soon.
Another TV man, this one from a national network approached, microphone in hand, camera right behind. Rossi sighed and smiled again for the camera.
"Paolo, how would you feel about coming to the U.S. to play."
This time Rossi didn't have to wait for the translation. He just laughed and winked at a friend.
"Maybe," he said, "Someday . . . "