If the near £200million move of Neymar from Barcelona to Paris Saint-Germain looks set to be the defining player transfer of the 2010s, there’s little doubt which deal represents its 1970s counterpart: the extraordinary 1978 move in which Vicenza acquired full ownership of striker Paolo Rossi. The parallels are many. Both deals involved a smaller club (in as much as PSG can ever be deemed to be a smaller club) handing out an unexpected transfer market black eye to a larger club, and both deals didn’t just surpass the previous world record – they blew them out of the water completely.
The parallels are many: both deals involved a smaller club (in as much as PSG can ever be deemed to be a smaller club) handing out an unexpected transfer market black eye to a larger club, and both deals didn’t just surpass the previous world-record – they blew them out of the water completely.
The Rossi situation was very much a mess of Juventus’ own making; he was originally signed by them at the age of 16 from a Florence youth team called Catholic Virtus and spent the next three years in the Turin club’s youth ranks. The knee problems that would blight his later career struck early and while still a teenager he undertook operations that left him with just one of his four cartilages intact. To get some regular football he was loaned out at Como where he made little impact, so Juve cut their losses by selling a half share in him and sending him on loan to Serie B Vicenza in 1976.
This was the turning point for his career. He found an inspirational coach in Gian Battista Fabbri who converted him to a centre-forward from the winger or inside forward role he had occupied previously. No other coach had believed he had the physicality to play that role. Fabbri was handsomely rewarded for his vision as Rossi swiftly evolved into a 21-goal arch-predator who inspired Vicenza to promotion in 1977. The script dictated this would be the point that Juventus, themselves in need of a striker by this stage, would step in and take custody.
Fabbri was handsomely rewarded for his vision as Rossi swiftly evolved into a 21-goal arch-predator who inspired Vicenza to promotion in 1977. The script dictated this would be the point that Juventus, themselves in need of a striker by this stage, would step in and take custody.
But Juventus were still not sure about Rossi and his suspect knees and chose to sign Pietro Paolo Virdis instead, leaving Rossi to start the 1977-78 season still in Vicenza’s colours. Rossi took a month to score his first Serie A goal but once he had the deluge started.
Serie B top scorer the previous season with 21, now the precocious forward had stepped up a level in quality yet still scored more frequently – 24 this time around as Vicenza finished surprise runners-up in Serie A. And all the while, Virdis was flopping badly in Turin.
Finally and irrefutably won over by Rossi’s transformation from callow youth to deadly international, Juventus stepped up their efforts to buy out Vicenza’s half share before the 1978 World Cup got underway. It was taken for granted that the provincial minnows would know their place and fall into line, but with European football to look forward to the Vicenza president Giuseppe Farina was determined to play hardball and do what he could to retain his talisman.
He offered to resign if, in his words, he let down the club by losing their star forward and the fans outcry at such a prospect encouraged him to stick to his guns and not be easily cowed. Juventus made several offers and each was rejected out of hand. Frustrated at the impasse, Juventus president Giampiero Boniperti demanded arbitration which involved both clubs submitting a secret, sealed bid. The one which put forward the larger bid bought outright ownership of the player.
Juventus submitted a generous £700,000 bid – thus valuing Rossi at a world-record £1.4million – but to Boniperti’s chagrin, his Vicenza counterpart submitted a scarcely believable offer of £1.5million, twice the Juve offer and valuing Rossi at an astonishing £3million.
“I never imagined that Vicenza would offer so much for me.” Paolo Rossi
As well as his own fans, Farina had the moral support of the remainder of Serie A who feared the championship would become yet another formality had Juve added yet another Italian international to their already formidable team.
With the ink on his contract barely dry, Rossi departed for the World Cup in Argentina where he would be stationed up front with limited support, the target for a physical battering by opposing defenders happy to make a blunt point to the world’s most expensive footballer.
Having played club and international football over the previous few seasons, Rossi returned home exhausted from the tournament and desperate for a rest. He’d find little chance of time to himself. Obliged to attend reception after reception, wherever the player went he was mobbed by fans eager to see this multi-million pound footballer in the flesh.
His heightened celebrity brought on board sponsors like Coca-Cola and Pony and his rapid commoditisation sat uneasily for an individual with an unassuming nature. In another act of bravado, his president took out a £3.5million insurance policy on his star forward which served simply to heap more attention on the player – and make him even more of a target for vindictive opponents.
Early in the 1978/79 season, he took a hammering on his knee during a UEFA Cup tie against Dukla Prague which brought two weeks in plaster and a month out of action. Such a prize asset was always going to be rushed back at the earliest possible opportunity and Rossi was thrust back into action too soon.
Limping his way through the season he at least showed his deadly instincts remained intact and by early spring Rossi was Serie A’s joint top scorer with nine goals, including the winner away at Juventus of all places. He’d finish the season with 15 league goals which, while representing a good return individually, was ultimately futile for a team that lacked quality in most other departments. Vicenza finished in the relegation places and were back to where they had started, albeit now with a huge financial millstone around their necks.
Already struggling to service the debt the club had taken on to buy out Juventus, the beleaguered Farina now had the most expensive player in the world and Italy’s first-choice centre-forward bound for the second tier. Instead, Rossi would go on loan to Perugia for the 1979-80 season, ostensively just until Vicenza returned, though to little surprise he would never play for the club again.
Forced to serve a ban in 1980 following the Totonero scandal, Rossi would eventually return to the game with…Juventus. The Turin giants had been forced to play the most patient of long games but they got their man in the end.