There is very little in the annals of American sport to compare with what Paolo Rossi did in the dusky Spanish summer a year ago. Maybe Jim Craig and the Olympic hockey team beating the Soviets. Maybe Don Larsen's perfect game. Maybe.
Rossi's six goals, which led Italy to victory in the 1982 World Cup, was one of the feats in sports that will be remembered long after future Cups have been won and lost. The photos of Rossi after scoring--arms upraised, mouth open, neck veins bulging--are recognized worldwide.
"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," said British striker Kevin Keegan last year, when he played with Rossi in an exhibition game in New York. "What else can a soccer player want?"
Rossi, who is here with his club team, Juventus, to play Team America tonight at RFK Stadium at 8 (WWDC-1260), remains largely unchanged by the events of the past year. Since the World Cup, Rossi has been the soccer player in the world. He is in demand for every exhibition or farewell game, every endorsement. He personifies success.
"Rossi has been a marked man on and off the field," said Toronto Blizzard President Clive Toye, whose team played a scoreless exhibition with Juventus Wednesday night in Toronto. "No one takes their eyes off him for a second."
"Everybody knows me wherever I go," said Rossi through an interpreter. "They treat me like a god. But I am just a normal person. I am nothing so special.
"I am just a player on this team," he continued. "We have many good players, and they, too, have had good games. But mine came in the World Cup, where everyone could see me."
Rossi looks much smaller than his 5 feet 8, 150 pounds. As he slumps in a seat on the team bus, his European-cut suit hangs loosely and his thin hands almost disappear up the sleeves. Only the eyes and angular smile hint of the energy within.
"Soccer, and the World Cup, are so unpredictable," said Rossi. "I am a hero now. But you cannot know what will happen in 1986. Things may change. Maybe no one will know me after the next World Cup."
Rossi knows how a public image can change: he was banned from soccer for two years following a nationwide betting scandal in Italy. Rossi denied a charge that he had accepted a bribe, but was not reinstated until just before the Cup began.
Rossi is curious about American soccer. His only previous appearance in this country was in the World Cup all-star game in August 1982 in New York, but the only U.S. player in the game was Giorgio Chinaglia, a naturalized citizen. Rossi knows of them only what he hears.
"I think maybe they have some exceptional players," said Rossi. "But soccer in this country is not too good. It is not on the international level. But this game (against Team America) will be good. Wherever we go, everybody wants to beat us.
"This game will be no different. I don't expect us to win easily, but in soccer everything is possible. But a loss to the Americans would be very disappointing."
Rossi, and Juventus, are well known to Team America Coach Alkis Panagoulias. As former coach of the Greek national team and the Greek league champion, Olympiakos, Panagoulias faced the Italians often. Rossi is a player he knows to fear.
"I know Juventus well, and they know me," said Panagoulias, who likely will have defender Dan Canter mark Rossi. "This guy Rossi is dangerous. He uses his head. He can look like he's doing nothing and then boom! He scores a goal."
A year ago, Rossi, 26, emphatically denied wanting to play in the North American Soccer League. Now he hedges when asked.
"That is hard to answer right now," he says slowly. "I like playing in Italy, but I don't deny the possibility of ever playing here. I like America. It might be fun."
But Toye doubts any team in the NASL, or the world, could afford him.
"For the next three or four years, Rossi cannot be bought," said Toye.
"But in the future, it might happen. Even then, you would have to take million-dollar stacks and start piling them up. Call this an educated guess, but I don't expect you could stop until you reached $12 million or so."