By David McGaw
Ten thousand natives, descendants and friends of the vibrant Italian diaspora within the harbour city blared horns and led the clarion call of trionfo when Italia became world champions once more. The first wave immigrants, now mature, heading for twilight, and with them, the children of visionary migrants heralding from Calabria to Umbria, from Veneto to Marche and Tuscany came together to flood the Piazza at the end of Norton Street in the early icy hours of a July Sydney dawn. It was 2006 and the Azzurri were captain and king again of the world’s greatest sporting obsession.
The television screens showed images of the tricolour celebrating in unison, with Berlin as the backdrop of an unlikely and perhaps unpopular world championship victory. Rewind 24 years to a less hectic time inside the teeming Santiago Bernabeu in Madrid, and again Italy erases a barren void almost twice as deep this time in the annals of World Cup history. Forty-four years had elapsed since back-to-back championships in the 1930s. Those consecutive titles aligned with the autocratic era of Mussolini and the impending global conflict tarnished the 1934 and 1938 successes when the Jules Rimet Trophy in glorious gold, last resided in a then-fascist Rome.
The 1982 Coppa del Mondo was nothing short of splendid, drenched in the Spanish sun as the Franco era faded and FIFA strategically expanded the tournament for the first time. Twenty-four nations ventured to Spain and the exotic cocktail of minnows from Cameroon, New Zealand, Honduras and Kuwait exacerbated the underwhelming expectation in which Italy entered the tournament. There was no entitlement, no grand optimism of a title despite a promising fourth at Argentina ’78. The tactical acumen of coach Enzo Bearzot on the back of a competitive hosting of Euro ’80 seemed less than convincing. Paolo Rossi was then absent, and Italy managed just two goals in four games, failing to inspire the home Italian fans. Missing from that 1980 continental championship and mired in controversy, suspended and stubbornly defending the allegations of bribery and gambling on football matches, the hero of the 1982 World Cup was waiting patiently for his time and to send Norton Street into ecstasy.
The more than 40 years which passed since Italy were crowned the Campioni del Mondo were about to end, although few believed it. Italian teams were consistently thereabouts at the World Cup and runner-up to the seductive Brazil of Mexico 1970 gave Italian fans hope the new World Cup trophy minted after that tournament would come again to the eternal city. Italy performed solidly in 1974 and 1978 with a notable young goal scorer from Vicenza at just 21 making headlines in the latter. ‘Pablito’ scored first-half goals against France, Hungary and Austria at Argentina ’78, with Italy also claiming the scalp of the host in a group match. The infamous Totonero scandal robbed Rossi of two full years of football in his prime and as our own National Soccer League blossomed with prominent Italian community clubs at the forefront of the Australian game, Paolo trained and patiently awaited his return to the pitch.
Paolo Rossi was the centre-forward who would at the beginning of the 1980s lift Italy again to the pinnacle of world football. Rossi was born in 1956 right in the middle of the post-war immigration boom from Italy to Australia. In the quarter-century following the end of hostilities in Europe, almost 230,000 Italians journeyed to the southern continent to begin life anew in Australia. Rossi was born in Prato, the second-largest city in Tuscany behind Florence and perhaps its prosperity as a textile and industrial city also recognised for exquisite cuisine and tourism made life more comfortable than many Italians from southern Italy endured and who felt a better life abroad was the correct choice for their families. Rossi’s home province and more broadly, Tuscany itself provided a significant number of Italian migrants to Australia.
One may wonder, did any of the Rossi family friends or relatives come to Australia and was it ever a topic of discussion in the Rossi household? Could Paolo have played for APIA?
The heyday of Rossi, Bearzot and the Azzurri of the early 1980s coincided with a giant of Australian football with deep roots on the Italian peninsula. APIA or the Associazione PoliSportiva Italo Australiana were formed in the inner west of Sydney in 1954 and as Italian migrants began an early move to the growing western corridor of the harbour city, APIA were soon followed by Marconi in the year of Rossi’s birth in 1956, forming a club at Bossley Park, around 30 kilometres west of Lambert Park, home of the APIA club. APIA would become Australian champions and enjoy state and national success while facilitating Italian community collegiality and a place to call home so far away from their nation of birth and so close to Sydney’s version of Little Italy in Norton Street, Leichhardt. Crowds swelled at home games and the profile of this great Italian community football club rose to dizzying heights.
APIA soon challenged for honours and played in four state grand finals within five years at the end of the 1960s. This period was inclusive of winning the Australia Cup in 1966 during a period where they also claimed the Ampol Cup and Federation Cup on multiple occasions.
When promoted to the pinnacle of Australian football and the National Soccer League, APIA arrived at the top table, regularly fielding a plethora of Australian internationals. APIA won the National Cup in September 1982 at the expense of Sydney rivals, Olympic and Marconi along the way before victory over Heidelberg United in the final. This occurred just weeks after Paolo Rossi had netted six goals in just three tumultuous matches at Espana ’82 to gift Italy its football crown. Rossi and APIA enjoyed some momentous days and Norton Street felt the thunder of car horns and the decoration of countless Italian flags. Vindication, pride, a longing for home as Italy won the World Cup and APIA made its mark nationally here in the new land.
APIA would continue to enjoy great success and in 1987-88 won both the National Soccer League title and cup again the following season. For a club formed by migrants from scratch in inner-west Sydney, it was befitting they rose to such heights. By 1992, the club was overwhelmed with financial difficulties and returned to state-level football a decade after the Tardelli scream reverberated with us all. To this day, APIA continues to contribute so much to the youth development and production line of quality Australian players and is still playing out of its gorgeous Lambert Park headquarters.
When Rossi opened the scoring in the 1982 World Cup final, how many founding fathers of the Leichhardt based club and young fans alike erupted as both lovers of the APIA Marronazzuri and the Bearzot led heroes that night in Madrid? It had started so differently for Italy, Bearzot and Rossi. The Azzuri were in a malaise. A lacklustre 0-0 stalemate against Poland, whom they would meet again in the final four, was followed by an insipid 1-1 tie with Peru. The cries to drop Rossi from the team came after a humiliating 1-1 draw with debutants Cameroon, who almost won the match on several occasions. A pinpoint cross to deliver the Italian goal overlooked by a missed header six yards out being Paolo’s contribution.
Rossi was hopelessly out of form, short of top condition and running out of time. In the second phase of the tournament, Rossi was booked early in the 15th minute and played cautiously afterwards against Argentina before being replaced ten minutes from full-time. An Italian victory, though, against the world champions was sufficient to keep the salivating press from further calls to expunge Rossi and force changes to the starting eleven. Against the irresistible Brazil a few days later came salvation. The doubts and dark nights were gone under a magical Catalan sun at the teeming Estadio Sarria. A peerless hat-trick to defeat Socrates, Falcao and Zico. Only the Bologna legend, Angelo Schiavio in 1934 had scored a hat-trick in the World Cup finals for Italy until that perfect day.
Paolo’s first goal after five minutes, a sweet header, his second a thumping finish capitalising on a wayward Cerezo pass and the third an opportune finish after a poorly cleared corner-kick meant in just over an hour, Paolo went from villain to hero in swift order. The Polish defence in the semi-final failed to contain this new beast and strikes in both halves saw Italy in the final and suddenly five goals in two matches had the Azzurri 90 minutes from heaven.
The rest is indeed history. Norton Street erupts, the Italian community of Sydney numbering almost six figures casts its gaze homeward even for a day and red, white and green of the Italian Republic looks more resplendent than ever. Rossi’s goal early in the second half broke open a German backline and match that was cagey, not surprisingly considering the prize at stake. By full-time, Rossi was immortalised in Italian football folklore. The Tuscan-born goalscorer from Prato became best player, leading goalscorer and World Cup-winning medallist at once, finally released from condemnation and criticism within his beloved Italy. To come was the Ballon d’Or, Serie A titles and a European Cup. 1982, however, was the year of Paolo.
Espana ’82 was free of the political pressure and spectre of Argentina ’78 with an expanded more global World Cup equally welcoming El Salvador as much as England. And within that tournament was one who received the ultimate anyone could ask for; the right time and place meeting belief and energy to produce something forever memorable. Rossi lived several perfect moments during the tournament. One of his goals against Poland delivered so deliciously from Conti who had said prior to the game it was Rossi’s time and to ‘just push’ and the ball will breach the net. Goalkeeper Zoff proclaimed that ‘Italy all went out to the town square to celebrate’ in a moment of unique solidarity for a constantly divided nation.
Paolo admits his first thoughts at full time in Madrid after the passionate and colourful final were that ‘he had made it’ and the ‘happiness which lasted just a few seconds before it was then gone’ became overwhelming. His strongest memory of that night he stated in an interview with FIFA years later was almost childlike. Rossi said the noise of cleats from the boots of the players on the bricks walking out to the pitch while emerging from the tunnel was a beautiful moment in life to be savoured per sempre or forever.
The next celebration to witness anything like the Italian community reuniting for a raucous party in the early hours in Leichhardt or in the clubrooms of APIA or Marconi may be the moment Italy record their fifth Coppa del Mondo success on a far-away pitch. Paolo’s departure, for now, means the horns are quiet on Norton Street while we await the next Pablito.
Vale Paolo Rossi who lived several hours of glorious life worth an age to those who saw it.