Tuesday, June 1, 2010

My First Soccer Hero (Sort Of)

The truth is that my first soccer hero was probably Michel Platini, the brilliant Frenchman who lit up World Cup '82 in Spain. That was the first World Cup I watched or was even aware of; I took it in on Mexican television (well, the Spanish International Network, anyway) back home in Texas.

That was the World Cup that introduced me to global football. I had been playing soccer for a few years, and I had watched the old North American Soccer League on TV and had even been to a Dallas Tornado game at Texas Stadium. But when my mother told me that soccer was the most popular sport in the world, I didn't really believe her. Surely American football in general and the Dallas Cowboys in particular were the most popular league and team in the world, right?

So I thought, until I turned on Channel 33 one summer day in 1982 and saw Peru playing somebody (I don't remember who) on a network that really was called SIN. I didn't understand the commentary, but I saw the crowd, heard the noise, and pretty much right then and there realized that I was watching the world's most popular sport. And I liked it. A lot.

All throughout that tournament, my best friend and I remained glued to the TV, watching each match with the babble of Spanish and the voice of the legendary Tony Tirado (creator of the "gooooooooool" call, as far as I know) rumbling in the background. I supported France, as I have some French heritage and my granny, who was of strong French extraction, had died only a few months before.

But during the '82 World Cup, there was a charismatic Italian who was lighting up the world stage. His name was Paolo Rossi, and he was tearing through opposing defenses and scoring goals with abandon. He was impossible to miss, streaking up and down the pitch and planting the ball in the back of the net. So, when France went out in a semi-final to the evil Germans and the diabolical Toni Schumacher in what is still the best football match I've ever seen, I fully took up supporting Paolo Rossi and Italy against the Germans in the final. (Hey, I was 8. I might have jumped on a bandwagon.)

Rossi didn't disappoint. He scored the first goal in the final, which Italy won 3-1. After that game, my friend and I sprinted around my backyard, pretending to score goals (and bending my parents' chain-link fence beyond recognition) and yelling, "Italy! Rossi!" I have great memories of that tournament and that summer, despite France's exit (and despite the fact that I don't support France in football anymore, but that's another story altogether). I still consider World Cup '82 the best World Cup ever, or at the very least the best of my lifetime. It was the event that really kicked off what would become my lifelong passion for soccer.

So, when I saw that Rossi had a video in ESPN's excellent I Scored a Goal series on players who have scored goals in World Cup final, I had to watch it. Once again, I was not disappointed. Paolo Rossi is everything I wanted him to be--he has a vineyard, salt-and-pepper hair and all the charm a Tuscan football master could muster (and that's a lot). He seems happy, and that makes me happy. Rossi! Italy! brought me much joy in my childhood, and it brings me joy to see him almost 30 years later, happily talking about his famous goal while roaming around his rows of grapes. Gratzie, Paolo. I'm glad to see that you're doing well.

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