BY CRAIG CAMPBELL

In nature there’s a brutal truth about something beautiful always getting its comeuppance. Whether it’s a doe-eyed mammal striding elegantly across the plain or a beatific panfish darting deep between the oceans, there is always the waiting mechanics of a set of teeth ready to devastate its backbone.

Football always comes full circle like that too. The beautiful game can’t defy the laws of the system forever, nor its progression. In a thrilling game in the 1982 World Cup, that philosophy would play out beautifully. That it would have a negative occurrence against an artistically perfect Brazil side would be the real shock. A team that contained such luminaries as Socrates and Zico. Part of a long history of Brazilians who could shift the ball like it was coasting on an invisible wind.

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By comparison, their opponents Italy were hardly the seminal Azzurri side. Written off by many before the tournament had even begun, they were fully expected to return home early into the cynical arms of a vengeful media. The newspaper knives were sharpened for a reason.  The early eighties had not been kind to Italian football; the Totonero scandal in which several players had been accused of taking bribes to throw football matches had embarrassed Italian football in 1980
and thrown a shadow over several of their national team’s stars too. The one who seemed to take most flak was centre forward Paolo Rossi, whose major role in the controversy and subsequent three year ban left not only a bad taste in the mouth of the football authorities, but also created a major problem too: arriving at the 1982 World Cup he still hadn’t been replaced as a natural goal scorer,  but to bring him back early for the tournament would have created something of a moral dilemma back home.

The fact that the Italian FA would choose the latter option would go on to have a seismic effect on the 1982 World Cup but going into the Brazil game, Rossi – like the rest of the Italian side – was hardly pulling up trees. Goalless and starring in three consecutive draws in the group stage had seen Italy scrape through to the next round by the skin of their teeth and a subsequent 2-1 victory over Argentina only seemed to be delaying the inevitable. An upcoming game against the tournament favourites surely meant the Azzurri would exit the World Cup: the question was would  they do so with their pride and goal difference still intact. Check Novibet Sports for the latest World Cup 2018 odds.

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What no one knew from the outside looking in, however, was that there was the underbelly of resistance starting to form in the Italian camp. Vilified to the point of ridicule,  they had begun to form a siege mentality. ‘It brought us together as a unit,’ Rossi would later recall. ‘The fact that we weren’t really liked made us more determined to show the world our capabilities.’  On a balmy July night in Barcelona that philosophy and spirit would pay dividends. With the expectancy of an Italian elimination everywhere in the ground apart from those in a blue shirt – the Azzurri would go on to produce a display that would shock the watching world.

It would take only five minutes, in fact, for the Brazilians to know they were in a football match. A headed Rossi goal would stun the sea of yellow in the stands into a lapse of momentary silence. As the centre forward wheeled away in celebration, the ecstasy on his face said it all. He had been something of a bit part player in Spain up to that point, but from that moment on he would be a completely different player. Ominously for Brazil, it was if the whole world had been lifted from his shoulders. Rossi and the rest of the Italian side suddenly meant business.

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So it then began. Two disparate football styles clashing for superiority under the searing Spanish sun. The stealth and the mechanics of the Italian system versus the artistry of the Brazilian esoteric.  First Brazil would equalise with sublime interplay between Zico and Socrates before the latter slotted home past a despairing Dino Zoff. It was as good a goal as Brazil had ever scored in the World Cup but as usual their defensive frailty would rear its head. A dreadful mistake by Brazil’s Cerezo was almost written in the stars shortly after. In stole poacher Rossi for his second with an emphatic finish and suddenly the impossible dream was seemingly only a whisper away.

It was the cue for the Italians to turn the screw. ‘It was the day football died,’ Zico would moan for nearly a decade after. Such a statement was pure hyperbole of course. The Italian lead lasted and their tactical nous frustrated Brazil. It was another characteristic of those in yellow that would prove to be their ultimate downfall – naïveté. Right from the moment Falcao finally got Brazil their precious equaliser and the point they needed to qualify, only crucially they couldn’t quite bring themselves to see out the game for a draw. Their pride and pomp wouldn’t let them and slowly but surely they set themselves up for the spiders web finish.

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And who else but Rossi would kill them off. A man who had once been described as a cross between a drug dealer and a lost prophet, springing upon a mishit Marco Tardelli shot from a corner to rifle home past the hapless Brazil keeper Peres and send the South Americans to an unexpected early exit. The same Rossi had seemed a spent force in Spain just a few games before. He laid the ghosts of Totonero and his imposed exile to rest. Those expressive eyes of his looked to the skies like a possessed Saint.

It was only the beginning for the Italians of course. Rossi and his fellow Azzurri would go on to lift the trophy and silence their detractors for good. As for Brazil? Their free flowing, cavalier style was never quite as free form again. They had to revert in part to the system, despite it being against everything their football philosophy stood for. For in truth the alternative didn’t bear thinking about: the pain and heartbreak they’d suffered in Barcelona in 1982 being played out in front of the watching world again.

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