roger mitchell
10 December 2020

Pablito: an 8 year old’s hero.

roger mitchell
10 December 2020

I belong to that diaspora of Italians originating from a small town in Tuscany, Barga. Hungry peasants, who emigrated en masse to Scotland for a better life. Hardworking people, full of ambition, and a desire to make a better world for their descendants. And, boy, did they succeed! The culture of the West of Scotland has been affected by them as much as America has by AfroAmericans. Ask Paolo Nutini.

– Barga, Tuscany

All of them however never left that small town on the hill. Casa, Calcio e Chiesa (home, football and church). That’s my DNA. No more, no less.

Like all of us, as kids in the 60s and 70s, we spent our summers in the hills of Garfagnana with the locals. Nearly 2 months. 

There we encountered a different kind of “football”, a different culture. The Italian school of Riva, Mazzola, Rivera.

I personally always found the structure and discipline of “il calcio” totally at odds with the Italian stereotypical personality of disorganised last-minute creativity. 

My introduction to Italian football.

You didn’t joke around with football over there.

where do you play?

well, I’m fast and pretty good at dribbling… so, I guess on the wing

naw, that’s not clear enough. Can you defend, will you track back, can you also see a pass, do you see the goals (vedere la porta)?

For some, I’m sure this detail was oppressive, even counter-productive, to what was a game of 8 year olds. 

This was my introduction to Italian football. And I loved it. It suited me, my personality, my desire, as an only-child, to be part of something bigger with a common goal. I was hooked. I still am.

The self-esteem to be an early “pick” in these Italian bounce games can’t be overstated; to say nothing of the thrill of having the whole little village turn up to watch the tornei with Fornaci and Castelnuovo. We were little more than infants, but it was a big thing. I was blown away.

Nothing beats the taste of Italian football. 

And for the rest of the year? We hadn’t yet had the explosion of sports broadcasting. So, back in Scotland, my generation had no means to follow football outside of the local fare. Hard to conceive, but there was no exposure to the glamour of foreign teams and stars except rarely. I mean, seeing Cruyff turn out in that Ajax iconic strip was a rare injection of glamour, painful glamour, as he brought in a kind of football that left my own glorious Celtic looking a bit dated. But he seemed magic then, and in Germany74 for Holland. Noone between 50-65 isn’t touched by Rep, Neeskens, Krol and Johan. 

Ah yes, the World Cups.

– 1982 WorldCup’s official Panini album


Those, unlike today, were unimaginable joy. Studying the Panini albums to get up to speed. Amazing strips (the green of Germany and Gunter Netzer remains strangely vivid to me). And rare. Only every 4 years. That thrill has gone. Proof positive that you can get too much of a good thing.

Italy were rubbish in 1974 and I personally found that totally unexplainable. At 10, you can’t rationalise things out, and it seemed like a glitch in the Matrix. It did. 

1978 was, however, different.

The whole experience had been “fluffed up” beautifully by Ally McLeod’s Scotland, but the money shot, as all of us will remember, was about tickertape, desperately late nights, Rene Houseman and Ardiles, and incredibly short shorts. Outrageous glamour. Italy conceded a goal in 20 seconds of their first game against a very decent French team. But it was clear that this wasn’t 1974, and they turned that around encouragingly easily. They had a young team with handsome young stars like Tardelli, Cabrini, Antognoni, Scirea.



And a certain Paolo Rossi.

They took on Argentina and just brushed them aside. Rossi, Bettega, GOAL!


That Mondiale was theirs for the winning. They lost to Holland from a winning position, sitting back, and inviting Arie Haan to shoot. He did.



Dino Zoff would have another day. Deeply deeply disappointing.

A great Italian team in the making.

– Gli Azzurri, Spain 1982

We all knew that this was a great Italian team in the making, built around the splendid Juventus of the late 70s, with Platini and Boniek. Rossi had also been bought in a world record fee. I remember reading the front page of the Gazzetta dello Sport at Onesti’s in Barga, as if it was yesterday. 

As in all great story arcs, you need the pit of despair. And Pablito, as happens in Italy, got involved in stuff that was beyond his control. The betting scandal known as Totonero, kept him out of football for 2 years. Can you imagine? He always maintained his innocence, and I actually tend to believe him. Many of the other players involved, easily fit the bill of “wide”, but not him. Anyway.

The Ghost.

Rossi only returned to football in Spring 1982, weeks before the World Cup in Spain. 2 years inactive. When you consider the great players available to coach Enzo Bearzot, why?… why did he consider the skinny, young striker indispensable? Memories of 1978? Belief? Destiny?

And the abuse he and Rossi got after the first three games in Spain, where both Italy and Rossi were appalling. “ A ghost aimlessly wandering the field”, as the Italian press described his performance.

Paolo was also accused of having a gay relationship with Cabrini, to which he uttered the immortal line: “I got off lightly, they had me down as the man“. Different times folks, different times! To be fair, Cabrini was, in fact, outrageously attractive. Ci sta!

Rossi was under siege. Think of the worst  criticism and bile you’ve ever witnessed for a player, and double it. Bearzot didn’t blink. 

– Diego and Paolo

The lad didn’t do great against Argentina either, but his teammates were magnificent in the vastly underrated win over Diego’s team in the next round. What a game. And that was peak-Maradona!

But all this was just the football Gods shoulder content. We didn’t know what was to come. No one did? Maybe Bearzot did? He always seemed to have a link to a higher plane. 

The legendary Italy – Brazil game.

Italy needed to win against the 1982 Brazil team. Yes, that team. They had dismantled an excellent Scotland team 4-1, humiliated Argentina and I’d suggest the greatest midfield of all time: Cerezo, Falcao, Socrates, Zico. And 2 fullbacks in Junior and Leandro, who would have been the most gifted players in the majority of teams in the world. 

Barcelona: a cacophony of sound and colour that afternoon.

I have personally heard many stories of Italians risking life and limb to get back home in time, driving like a scene from Cars. Anticipation isn’t the word. 

I saw the game in Scotland, with BBC commentary I think. All I remember is Bobby Charlton was a pundit and his line “Brazil have been behind before in this tournament, but not against an Italian defence; not this defence.

Italy have always been underestimated in football, especially in the UK. Defensive, cynical, dour. I have never understood that blind spot, because when Italians need to take the game to the opponent, they are more Pirlo, Totti, Del Piero, Zola, than Gentile! They needed to win and, thus, behaved accordingly. Lovely attacking play in those elegant little triangles of theirs. 

I remembered all those kids in Barga. Teaching me to pass it. Just pass it, and move into space. It was one of those epical games. You get maybe a handful in your lifetime. 

The Ghost‘s hat-trick.

Conti, Cabrini, and a cross to the “ghost” at the far post. Goal!

Yes, Rossi was that ghost, just that he wasn’t wandering aimlessly anymore. Splendid header. 

Well, that lit the touchpaper of what is probably the greatest World Cup game of all time. Read about it elsewhere and often. 

Socrates scores, after a Zico turn on Gentile, that would have been clapped at La Scala, as beautiful as it was.

Back to square 1. Not for long. Rossi picks the pocket of a square ball in defence. 

To be fair, we then see 30 mins of beautiful football from Brazil in relentless attack. Those players were glorious. Only Bobby’s “Italian defence” held them as best they could. Meanwhile, Rossi missed a sitter. You need to be honest. 

Junior breaks forward into midfield (think Marcelo, but much, much better) and the ball arrives at that impossible footballer of Roma, called Falcao. The best outside run from Cerezo, to take the defence away, you’ll ever see, and a left foot rocket. 2-2.

It is honestly difficult to articulate the tension then of all this for nationals of Italy and Brazil. Corner to Italy, sclaffed shot by Tardelli and that “ghost” again, poaching his hat-trick.

Corriere dello Sport’s front page: 6/7/1982 “Il Brasile siamo noi

Aimless, they said? A hattrick in the biggest of all big games. Enzo Bearzot is a saint in Italy, because he knew. He always knew. Most of us would have cut the lad adrift. I would have. 

Italy score a 4th goal, Rossi‘s assist, chalked off for an offside no one saw. Zoff makes a last-second save from a corner, to protect the glory of it all. Arie Haan forgotten.

In Brazil they were jumping out of windows. In Italy, anyone with a dicky heart had serious issues. 


… and the rest is history.

The rest of the tournament is, indeed, history. The history of Association football. Pablito scores a doppietta in the semi against Poland and, obviously, also opens the gates to the Italian win in the final with his 6th of the tournament. All poacher goals. That was Paolo Rossi.

Sure he won loads with Juventus and was a great player. But never ever, in the history of football, has there been a redemption story like the balmy summer days in Spain in 1982. Cometh the hour, cometh the man.

Pablito was a quiet man; shy, even awkward. Never the glamour or cool of a Pirlo or Totti. Never marketed as the chosen one he clearly was.

He died today. A life less ordinary. And we, a whole generation, a whole diaspora, were there.

Grazie Paolo,
buon viaggio.

From the 8 year old in Barga.


Illustrator Jacopo Ziliotto‘s comments about his drawing

I did a very iconic Paolo Rossi, the way I remember him. His no 20 strip, which, for me, is Pablito. The head slightly tilted, to represent his meekness. The arms are thin and sinewy. I considered the background of the image, with other protagonists, but no. I chose to leave all that white around him, in isolation: it’s more poetic. Also, the pencil trait better reflects this nostalgic moment, I think. 

Ho fatto un paolo rossi molto iconico. La sua numero 20, che per me resta Pablito. la testa leggermente inclinata, che per me rappresenta il suo carattere mite. le braccia secche e nervose. Stavo pensando a persone o ambienti da mettere intorno ma alla fine lasciare tutto lo spazio bianco solo per lui mi sembra una scelta, passami il termine, più poetica.
L’ho anche lasciato a matita perchè mi sembra più toccante.
This is what it’s like to work with a true artist.

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