December 27, 1982 12:00 PM

Never mind the World Series, the Super Bowl, the Kentucky Derby. The world’s premier sporting event is the quadrennial World Cup of soccer. Last summer Mundial ’82—televised live from Spain—presented to one-third of the population of the planet Earth a hero worthy of the attention. A wiry striker named Paolo Rossi broke a scoreless tie in the final game with a deft head shot to lead the Italian team to a 3-1 victory over West Germany and its first World Cup since 1938.

But it was the way Italy got to the final that allows Rossi, 26, to take his place beside soccer’s all-time great, Pelé. As the 29-day Cup drew to a rousing close, Rossi scored all three of Italy’s goals against a favored Brazil side; since 1966 no team in World Cup competition had managed to score three goals against Brazil, let alone a single player. Then Rossi scored his team’s only two goals in its victory over perennially tough Poland. Along with his ice-breaker in the final, Rossi had produced an unprecedented six straight goals. “People will talk about what Paolo did for years,” says Rome sportswriter Enrico Jacomini, adding with a touch of Latin hyperbole, “In America, you could compare it to making six touchdowns on six consecutive passes in the Super Bowl.”

The drama that led up to Rossi’s heroics on the playing field was no less gripping. The star of the Italian team’s fourth-place finish in the 1978 World Cup, Paolo was implicated in a betting scandal in 1980. Despite his acquittal in a Rome criminal court, he and 20 other players were suspended from competitive play by a soccer tribunal, which reportedly sought to make them a moral example. Rossi began playing again just three weeks before the start of the 1982 World Cup, and he performed so poorly in a first-round game against Peru that he was banished to the bench with tears in his eyes. The Italian press howled “Send him home!” right up to the Brazil game, when Paolo emphatically reverted to form. Says Rossi, who bears his detractors surprisingly little ill will: “The World Cup was a personal satisfaction. More than revenge, it was satisfying because after two years, I did not know how I would play. I was very fortunate at the right moment to find the right companions, the right atmosphere and [coach Enzo] Bearzot, who had faith in me.”

A breed apart from his lady-killing teammates, Rossi is bemused by the adulation of his countrymen, who follow him like a kite’s tail. He takes refuge in a favorite bar in Turin, where he lives. There, over cappuccino, he speaks of “my biggest ambition right now, which is to have a beautiful, healthy baby.” His wife, Simonetta, is due to give birth any day. Asked whether he wants a big family, he laughs and says, “We men are quick to say, ‘Yes, I’d like a bunch of kids.’ But the women have to suffer to have them. At the moment we hope for three.”

Otherwise he is a man whose dreams have come true. He is the highest-paid soccer player in Italy—with a salary estimated at $178,000 a year plus bonuses and several endorsement arrangements; understandably he wants to go on playing “for as long as my body permits,” which will no doubt include the 1986 World Cup. Eventually, like Pelé, he hopes to spend his last playing days in the United States. So far his exposure to this country has been limited to New York State, but “I would like to see the rest of it,” reports Rossi. “I have always been fascinated by America.” Thanks to his remarkable performance last summer, the feeling is suddenly, irrevocably mutual.

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