Soccer-Italy's World Cup hero Rossi dies aged 64


Italy's Paolo Rossi gets away from Brazil's Junior during the FIFA World Cup second phase group 4 match in Estadio Sarria, Barcelona, July 5, 1982. Mandatory Credit: Action Images/REUTERS

(Reuters) -Paolo Rossi, Italy's goalscoring hero from their victorious 1982 World Cup campaign and scorer of a hat-trick against Brazil in one of the most famous matches in the competition's history, has died at the age of 64.

The celebrated striker's death comes with the soccer world still in mourning for Argentina icon Diego Maradona, who passed away late last month.

Italian TV channel RAI Sport, where Rossi had been working as a pundit, said on Thursday "Pablito" had died of an "incurable disease".

Rossi's wife, Federica Cappelletti, posted a photo of herself and her husband on Instagram along with the words "per sempre" - "forever".

"There will never be anyone like you, unique, special ..." Cappelletti later wrote in Italian on Facebook.

The Italian Football Federation (FIGC) president Gabriele Gravina said that Rossi was "indelibly linked to the blue shirt and his style of play inspired many strikers of future generations."

Rossi, almost frail-looking for a striker at the time but quick, agile and intelligent, won two Serie A titles, a European Cup and a Coppa Italia with Juventus but will be most fondly remembered for lighting up the 1982 World Cup in Spain with six goals.

His selection in the Italy squad came after a two-year ban for a match-fixing scandal and was initially criticised by pundits, who wrote him off as out of shape.

But they were left eating their words when he struck one of the World Cup's great hat-tricks against Brazil, who were runaway favourites and had enchanted the world with their flowing football.

Italy's 3-2 victory in that classic encounter in the second group phase booked them a place in the semis against Poland, where Rossi again made the difference.

He sunk the Poles with a brace in a 2-0 win that fired his side into the World Cup decider against West Germany.

Rossi then scored Italy's first in a 3-1 victory that gave them their third World Cup title and their first since 1938.

He won the Golden Boot as the top scorer and Golden Ball as the player of the tournament, a campaign regarded as one of the best individual World Cup performances of all-time.

He was also awarded the 1982 Ballon d'Or as Europe's top footballer.

"This came out of the blue," said Dino Zoff, goalkeeper in the 1982 team.

"We'd heard something was wrong but I didn't think it was that serious. I had a wonderful relationship with him, he was a lovely guy. This is something which is difficult to understand."

Another team mate, Giancarlo Antognoni said: "Another piece of history of my beloved football has gone."

PERSONAL REDEMPTION

Born in Prato, Tuscany, Rossi played his entire club career in Italy. He was banned for three years in 1980 as part of the nation's infamous "Totonero" match-fixing scandal but always denied any wrongdoing.

The ban was later reduced to two years, allowing him to carve out his slice of World Cup history and win "personal redemption."

"On one hand I felt fulfilled. I said to myself, 'you've made it'," he said in a FIFA documentary in 2018.

"On the other hand, I was disappointed that all of this just ended. The World Cup was over."

He also scored three goals at the 1978 World Cup in Argentina. With a total of nine goals, he remains Italy's joint highest scorer at the World Cup with Roberto Baggio and Christian Vieri.

He was included in the 1986 World Cup squad but did not play and ended his playing career a year later with Verona, at the relatively young age of 30.

Italians woke on Thursday to media eulogies for one of the country's favourite soccer sons.

Rossi was "the one who beat Zico's Brazil, Maradona's Argentina, Boniek's Poland and in the final, the Germany of Rummenigge," La Gazzetta dello Sport said on its website.

Former Italy Prime Minister Matteo Renzi tweeted: "In our hearts, forever. Farewell Pablito."

Germany's former World Cup winner Juergen Klinsmann tweeted: "Dear Pablito, we always remember you!"

Former Italy coach Giovanni Trapattoni, 81, said: "Bye bye Paolo -- players should never depart before coaches."

(Reporting by Ian Ransom in Melbourne and Hardik Vyas in Bengaluru; additional reporting by Brian Homewood in Lisbon; Editing by Peter Rutherford and Toby Davis)

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