WELLINGTON (Reuters) - Paolo Rossi once described his performance at the 1982 World Cup, where he etched his name into football folklore, as "personal redemption" from a match-fixing scandal, even though he always said he had nothing to atone for.
Rossi, who died at the age of 64 early on Thursday, had been handed a three-year ban in the fallout from the "Totonero" scandal in 1980, but when the sanction was reduced to two years it gave him the opportunity to rebuild his reputation.
The Juventus striker's six goals, including an astonishing hat-trick against Brazil, helped him to the Golden Boot as the tournament's highest scorer while he was also awarded the Golden Ball as the best player of the tournament.
Rossi had returned to the field just months before the World Cup in Spain and was considered unfit.
He was ineffective in Italy's first three pool matches, failing to score in three draws, prompting Italian journalist Gianni Brera to describe him as "an ectoplasm of himself".
But just when it seemed Italy did not have a ghost of a chance of winning the World Cup, Rossi came alive, scoring all three goals in their pulsating 3-2 win over Brazil in the second stage group match in Barcelona.
He continued his run with both goals in the 2-0 defeat of Poland in the semi-finals before snaring the opener in a 3-1 victory over West Germany in the final in Madrid.
"That goal, more than any other goal I've ever scored, completely defined my characteristics," Rossi told a FIFA documentary in 2018.
"It was mine because I stole that precious tenth of a second from the defender and I knew he would never reach me."
Shortly after the news of Rossi's death broke in the early hours of Thursday, tributes poured in for one Italy's favourite soccer sons.
La Gazzetta dello Sport said Rossi was "the one who beat Zico's Brazil, Maradona's Argentina, Boniek's Poland and in the final, the Germany of Rummenigge".
La Stampa called him the "hero of Spain '82".
Social media was ablaze with messages for Rossi, with #PaoloRossi becoming Italy's top trending item on Twitter.
The World Cup victory had sparked an outpouring of emotion in Italy and gave rise to hope that the extreme violence, political and social unrest that swept the country in the 'Years of Lead' might also be washed away.
Rossi had mixed feelings about the World Cup.
"On one hand I felt fulfilled. I said to myself, 'you've made it'," he said in the 2018 documentary.
"On the other hand, I was disappointed that all of this just ended. The World Cup was over.
"(But) when you win something important it's not just about the trophy. It's about the group you win it with, it's about your entire career that took you there.
"It's about your personal redemption."
(Reporting by Greg Stutchbury; Editing by Peter Rutherford)
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