Having agreed a deal with West Germany to swap votes for hosting rights back in the 60s, Spain were awarded the 1982 tournament, with the World Cup expanding to 24 teams for the first time. If the competitions of ’70 and ’74 had introduced an exciting, technicolour festival of football to the watching world, then ’82 continued the new trend of major controversy first stoked in Argentina four years earlier. The expanded format allowed for extra places for the smaller confederations, with Asia and Oceania simultaneously entering teams to the finals for the first time, in the shape of debutants Kuwait and New Zealand. The second qualifying berth for North America was taken by first-timers Honduras, and Africa was also given two places at the tournament for the first time, with Cameroon and Algeria both making their first finals appearances. The usual suspects from South America arrived, with holders Argentina and Brazil among the favourites to win the tournament, while two-time finalists Netherlands missed out. The home nations sent three sides for the first time since 1958, with long time absentees England returning alongside Scotland and Northern Ireland. Despite the expansion, the double group stage format used in 1978 remained, with an initial six groups of four yielding a further four groups of three, with one winner from each progressing to the semi-finals.
Holders Argentina opened the tournament against Belgium in typically anti-climactic fashion, losing 1-0 in a tightly contested game between the two sides that would eventually both progress from Group 3. Hungary, now well past their 50s vintage, did at least enjoy a remarkable 10-1 win against lowly El Salvador, but a single point from their fixtures against Argentina and Belgium wasn’t enough to see them progress. Group 1 was high on promise if not goals, with the excellent Poland coming out top having thrashed Peru 5-1 in the final group game. Italy finished second, above Cameroon, thanks to goals scored, though both sides drew all three of their group games. Group 2 brought shocks and controversy, with the overconfident West Germans predicting they’d score seven against new boys Algeria, only to lose 2-1 to the Desert Foxes in the opening game. By the last round of fixtures, however, Austria knew that a 1-0 defeat to the Germans would ensure the safe passage of both sides, and aside from Horst Hrubesch’s tenth minute goal, a tepid game of anti-football was played out, earning the match it’s very own Wikipedia page, entitled ‘The Disgrace of Gijón’.
England made an emphatic return to World Cup action, scoring after 27 seconds of their group opener against France in Group 4, while more bizarre action would follow as France had a perfectly legitimate goal ruled out against Kuwait, after the president of the Kuwaiti FA ordered his team off the field after a whistle in the crowd led to the team stopping play and allowing Alain Giresse to fire into the net. France still won 4-1, and followed England into the second round. Group 5 saw another shock result as Gerry Armstrong’s goal secured a 1-0 win for Northern Ireland over hosts Spain, which saw both sides progress, while Brazil, back to their brilliant best with a host of new and exciting attacking talent, dominated Group 6 with three wins and ten goals, with the Soviet Union sneaking above Scotland into second place.
The second round produced four intriguing looking groups, though Poland lived up to their favourites tag in Group A, dispatching Soviet Union and Belgium, while France had little trouble topping Group D with wins over Austria and Northern Ireland. Group B was tight as a gnat’s chuff, and Kevin Keegan came within inches of putting England into the semi-finals, but Ron Greenwood’s side stuttered to two goalless draws against West Germany and Spain, with Klaus Fischer’s goal enough to put the Germans through to a semi-final showdown with France. The group of death, however, was Group C.
Holders Argentina, struggling to find their best form while integrating the emerging golden boy Diego Maradona, were drawn with deadly rivals Brazil who, after their opening three games, had been upgraded to firm favourites for the tournament, and the consensus seemed to be that whichever of the South American nations won through would go on to win the competition. Understandably nobody gave Italy a cat in hell’s chance. After a 0-0 and two 1-1s in the first round, it was clear Italy hadn’t yet found their feet in the competition, and though they still possessed the human wall of Dino Zoff in goal, their struggles up front were widely documented. Still, Italy beat Argentina 2-1 in the opening game of the second round group, and once Brazil followed suit, the stage was set for a shootout between two polarised styles of football. Catennaccio versus O Jogo Bonito, Defence versus Attack, Efficiency versus Excitement. When the teams were revealed, many Azzurri supporters couldn’t believe that manager Enzo Bearzot had named Paolo Rossi in the team again. The Juventus striker was on a run of ten games without a goal for the national team, stretching back to 1979, and he’d come into the tournament off the back of a tumultuous few years.
Rossi had first broken through the youth ranks at Juventus during the mid-70s, but it wasn’t until a loan move to Vicenza, during which Giovan Battista Fabbri converted the Tuscan from a winger to a striker, that Rossi truly began to show his potential. Twenty-one goals in his first season at the Stadio Romeo Menti helped Vicenza to promotion from Serie B, and his form continued the following season, netting 24 in 30 appearances, helping Vicenza to second place and earning himself a call up to the national team. His breakout peformances at the 1978 World Cup earned Rossi a place in the team of the tournament, and also led to Vicenza breaking the world transfer record to secure the striker’s permanent signature, though a season blighted by injury would follow, and by the start of the 79/80 season, he’d been loaned out to Perugia.
The move would prove a defining moment in Rossi’s career as, after a productive season in Serie A, the former Juve man was implicated in the Totonero match-fixing scandal, with a host of fellow professionals outed for throwing games in exchange for money. Five teams in Serie A were punished for their involvement, with Milan and Lazio both relegated to Serie B for the following season, while Avellino, Bologna and Perugia were all deducted points. Rossi, for his part in the accusations, was banned from football for three years. After consistently pleading his innocence, the striker managed to reduce the ban by a year, and was even purchased back by Juventus whilst ineligible. Returning to football in time for the end of the 81/82 season, Rossi made three appearences and scored once for the Turin club as they lifted the Serie A trophy, and Bearzot showed immediate faith by not only including him in the squad for the World Cup, but also putting him straight into the starting lineup. Having failed to struggle the scoresheet in his first four appearances at the tournament, the stage was set for the greatest redemption story ever told.
In the lead-up to the match, the key tactical battle was identified as Claudio Gentile – Italy’s hard-tackling man marker, who’d kept Maradona under wraps in the previous game – against Zico, one of Brazil’s many mercurial talents. What the pundits didn’t expect to see was Italy coming out to play in the opening stages, happy to leave gaps at the back in order to attack Brazil in a game they knew they had to win. In the fifth minute, the unthinkable happened. Antonio Cabrini’s cross into the box was met by the head of Rossi, and the marksman’s drought was finally over. Italy had the lead. Seven minutes, and a swell of Brazilian pressure later, the equaliser arrived from an irresistible attack finished off by Socrates. Italy, though, came straight back at Brazil, and secured a half-time lead when Rossi drilled home from Cerezo’s misplaced pass. The next forty minutes of the match were played on the edge of the Italian area, with Bearzot’s team defending for their lives against wave after wave of yellow shirted attacks, until Falcao took aim from twenty yards and beat Zoff to make it 2-2. The Italians had to pick themselves up once again, but the release of pressure from Brazil allowed them back on the front foot, and a poorly cleared corner was tossed back into the area to allow Rossi to stab home from close range. Irreale. Incredibile. Maestoso. A hat-trick for the much maligned Rossi at the most crucial time, and this time Italy hung on and Brazil, the favourites,were out.
Another two goals from Rossi would see off Poland to put Italy in the final, where they’d face West Germany, winners of a remarkable game against France best remembered for Harald Schumacher’s callous assualt on Patrick Battiston, but perhaps lesser known for being an amazing game of football that swung this way and that before France were cruelly denied victory in a penalty shootout. In a final that ended up far more one-sided than many could have predicted, Paolo Rossi opened the scoring to secure the Golden Boot as top scorer at the World Cup, months after returning from a two-year ban. Further goals from Marco Tardelli, one of the most iconic moments in World Cup history, and Alessandro Altobelli were enough to earn Italy their third tournament win, and seal the greatest of comebacks by the man forever known, thanks to his antics in the Spanish sunshine, as Torero.