If 1982 was the World Cup of Paolo Rossi, then 1986 is the collapsing world of Paolo Rossi.

Four years ago in Spain, Rossi inspired Italy to its third World Cup title. With his six-goal performance, he discovered new-found fame and wealth. All of Italy followed his every move.

But since then, he has played sluggishly and had several knee operations. Now, at age 29, he is said by many to be through as a world-class player, and the once stylish center-forward has yet to play in Italy's 1986 Cup bid.

He has gone from the team's centerpiece to the team's mantelpiece, just a showy reminder of Italy's recent soccer glory.

Rossi accepts his role, he says, because he has no choice. But he does not accept the fact that his skills have diminished radically.

"I am very sad because my wish was to play every game of this World Cup," Rossi said today, speaking softly to reporters after Italy finished practice for its Tuesday Group A match against South Korea. "Already two matches have come and gone, I am on the bench and that depresses me.

"Naturally, I am not the player I was four years ago. But I know I am still skillful. I am in fine condition. I have had some physical problems, but they are history. I know I can play, I know I can score."

Rossi may play yet. In Italy's first two matches, he was not even activated for the team's 16-man roster. But Italy has scored only two goals -- both by Alessandro Altobelli, one on a penalty kick -- and Coach Enzo Bearzot has hinted Rossi might be a substitute against South Korea.

"People always want to know about Rossi. Everyone follows him, whether he is awake or asleep," Bearzot said. "But he is not the reason we are scoring or not scoring. We have had opportunities, but we have been unable to turn them into goals. I think we will score, with or without Rossi. I will use him if I decide to use him."

"I think Paolo Rossi can be an important player for us," said teammate Antonio di Gennaro, "but if he's not playing, the coach knows why."

Although others think Rossi can be the finishing touch Italy's attack needs, many observers watching him in practice say he is a step slow and looks uneasy. Then again, opinion often has been divided on Rossi since he turned professional in 1977.

At 20, Rossi scored three goals and helped Italy to a fourth-place finish in the 1978 World Cup in Argentina. That year, the Italian League's Lanerossi Vicenza paid Juventus Turin a transfer sum of $3.5 million for him, an amount many thought to be outrageous.

In 1979, Rossi's world collapsed for the first time. The Italian soccer federation banned him for two years for his part in a bribery and match-fixing scandal. He went to the '82 World Cup having played only three matches after the ban ended.

In the opening games of that Cup, he was unimpressive. He did not score in Italy's first four matches, then scored all of the goals in a 3-1 victory over Brazil, both of the goals in a 2-0 semifinal victory over Poland and one goal in a 3-1 title victory over West Germany.

Suddenly, Rossi was revered, the bribery scandal seemingly a distant memory.

In the 1982-83 season, Rossi reportedly made more than $1.5 million through his Juventus contract and personal endorsements. But his play increasingly was uninspired, and physical problems plagued him. "The success and money did not change me," he said. "My head is the same it was, but my legs were not."

In 1985, Juventus sold him to AC Milan. Earlier this year, Milan traded him to Verona for World Cup teammate Guiseppe Galderisi, who essentially replaced him on Italy's national team.

Today, Rossi politely declined to discuss the soccer scandal. "That is a chapter closed, and it does not reflect on anything we are doing here," he said.

When Rossi discussed his benching, one could sense his hurt. He seemed to be burning on the inside, like many sports stars before him who are told their time has passed and remain convinced otherwise.

Despite his mediocre play in recent seasons and his poor training camp with the national team, Rossi said he still believed, up until the World Cup's opening ceremonies, that he would play a lot. Only two days before the opening match, he said: "I have not set an exact number of goals that I would like to score, but I would like to get the most possible to be in the battle for the individual goal-scoring title."

Now, he looks forever perplexed by his predicament.

"If this had happened four years ago, I might not have been able to accept it," Rossi said today. "I am more mature now. It is at the point where I do not need to prove anything to anybody, although the desire is there to show what I still can do.

"I don't play, because at the moment, there are others on this team who are playing better than I, according to Mr. Bearzot.

"My wish is to play in this World Cup. It is something I want very, very much. But if that cannot be, there is really nothing left for me to say."

With that, Rossi picked up a towel off the ground, wiped his forehead and jogged away. Nobody followed after him.