Liam Brady: As great as he was, I'll remember Paolo Rossi best as the pal who was always smiling

Liam Brady played just three matches at Juventus with the late Italian legend Paolo Rossi, but they always remained friends
Liam Brady: As great as he was, I'll remember Paolo Rossi best as the pal who was always smiling

Liam Brady with his friend Paolo Rossi during their time together at Juventus

I couldn't believe it when I woke up this morning and heard about the death of Paolo Rossi. The star of the 1982 World Cup passing away so soon after the hero of ‘86.

Though I never got close to Diego, his death shook us all. But Paolo Rossi was different. Paolo was a very good friend and this terrible news came as a real shock.

I didn’t know he had been ill. Straight away I rang Marco Tardelli, who was his great pal, and Marco hadn’t known either that his situation had been that serious.

Marco told me Paolo was working three weeks ago as a pundit on Italian station RAI. So this news has rocked all of Italy.

But that was Paolo. We only ever saw him smiling, happy, up for a laugh. Maybe he wanted to keep it that way, even with his close friends like Marco.

Of course I knew all about him before I knew him. He announced himself at the 1978 World Cup, scoring three goals for Italy aged just 22. But I was really charmed by that marvelous one-two where he set up Roberto Bettega against Argentina. A goal that oozed Italian class and sophistication.

Then came the dark cloud of Paolo’s two-year ban for allegations of match-fixing. He missed the 1980 European Championships held in Italy, which he always carried as a deep regret.

I’d been in Turin for a year when he joined us. Even though I knew well how good he was, it was a surprise to a lot of us that Juventus signed him then, since he still had the best part of a year left on his suspension. But they wanted to secure one of the best strikers in Europe.

That season, I never asked him about it. I was new to Italy and didn’t think it my place. But later, when we’d become friends, he was adamant he hadn’t done anything wrong, that he’d been made an example of as a high-profile international.

Not many footballers have been through what he suffered that season. Fully fit, never injured, he trained with us all the time, trained well. Forever cheerful, becoming part of the group.

He’d come to our matches on Sunday, and we’d go out after for a meal. Myself, Tardelli and him, a few friends outside football, our wives. After, we’d go back to someone’s house and watch the football — the Italian Match of the Day. Paolo liked a cigarette and one or two glasses of wine. But he was a man for moderation.

Late that season, word broke Juve were going to sign Michel Platini, so I’d be on my way out. It was a tough time, personally. I loved the place. We’d won the Scudetto the year before and were challenging again. At a frustrating time for himself, I’ll always remember how supportive Paolo was.

And I’m delighted we got three games together. His ban was up and Giovanni Trapattoni had no hesitation in putting him straight in the team. And he scored in his comeback match — a 5-1 win away at Udinese.

He played the next two games and we won the title on the last day with that penalty I wasn’t supposed to take. There’s a good photo of Paolo chasing me in the celebrations.

Then off he went to the World Cup with just three games under his belt in two years.

 
 

Italy were so poor in the opening group phase and Paolo was getting a lot of stick. Why are you playing a rusty striker, all that stuff. The whole team were getting it. I remember the headline, ‘Come home, you’re a disgrace’.

Then they beat Argentina, stopping Maradona, before Paolo exploded against Brazil.

That brilliant hat-trick is the perfect CV for everything he was about as a player, his array of talents.

The first, gets free at the back post, little header, back across the keeper. That was him, always darting to the near post, then pulling to the back. So clever, he had all the little tricks of his trade.

Then he was onto Cerezo’s pass, nipped past Junior, and smashed it in the net before Peres had time to set himself. Paolo always knew when to hit it early or whether there was time for a touch.

The third, poaching, lurking in the six-yard box, where he got so many of his goals. Sharp, first-time finish.

Don’t underestimate him, he was great at link-up play as well. Good awareness and touch. If you knocked it into his feet it stuck.

But he was a killer in the six-yard box. A lean, agile predator. Always on his toes for a spill or a rebound. Like Lineker, or Aguero of the modern stars.

BARCELONA, SPAIN - JULY 5: Paolo Rossi of Italy shields the ball from Junior of Brazil during the World Cup Round Two, Group Three match between Brazil and Italy held at the Sarria Stadium, Barcelona, Spain on July 5, 1982. Italy won the match 3-2. (Photo by Getty Images)
BARCELONA, SPAIN - JULY 5: Paolo Rossi of Italy shields the ball from Junior of Brazil during the World Cup Round Two, Group Three match between Brazil and Italy held at the Sarria Stadium, Barcelona, Spain on July 5, 1982. Italy won the match 3-2. (Photo by Getty Images)

That hat-trick, and three more in the semi-final and final, helped Italy win the World Cup. He was player of the tournament and Golden Boot winner. In just a few months, he’d been catapulted from pariah to national hero. But it never changed him.

He did always talk about his ‘redemption’, but never got carried away with what he had done. He was a laid-back, affable guy, who never really got too wrapped up in football.

To be honest, I don’t think he was ever totally in love with the game. I always got the feeling he could take it or leave it. When he finished playing, he had no interest in coaching or management. Maybe that helped him too as a striker. I don’t think he ever let a miss or two affect him.

He went on to win another title with Juve and a European Cup on that horrible night at Heysel.

I played against him with Sampdoria. And in a couple of derbies at the San Siro when he’d moved onto AC Milan and I was at Inter. We remained good friends. Wherever we were, Turin or Milan, one of us would stay over and the gang would reunite.

I can see him now, enjoying a whiskey to finish the night.

He always stayed fit after football, never put on a pick of weight. In recent years, he turned up on Italy’s version of Strictly, Ballando con le Stelle. Still on the toes.

He was hugely popular on a show where his personality counted as much as his quick feet. Italy fell in love with him all over again.

I remember ringing him and we had a good laugh about it. He didn’t take any of it too seriously. Yet he was a very good and popular pundit, I watched him a couple of times. He was one of those guys who’d make very good points without being over critical of anyone.  

Liam Brady with Paolo Rossi
Liam Brady with Paolo Rossi

It will be an emotional weekend. The mourning won’t be as frenzied as in Argentina for Diego. But his country will mourn Paolo now in a deeply Italian way, with respect and reverence and love.

I’m glad we had those three matches together. But more glad he stayed in my life afterwards. As great a striker as he was — and I can name few better — I’ll remember him best as a pal who was always happy and forever smiling.

Rest in peace, my friend.

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