By Michelangelo Deodato, an Italian from Vienna, Austria
Administraor of Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/groups/elhombredelpartido/
The ties that bind: the story of the only match played
by 1982 World Cup Hero Paolo Rossi as player of the indoor soccer team Buffalo
Stallions in the Major Indoor Soccer League in 1980. The only game he played
during his two years suspension.
I was searching in Google for a new image to be added in my Facebook Group dedicated to him and called: "Paolo Rossi: el hombre del partido", the way the football scoreboard named him after the 1982 World Cup semifinal Italy - Poland. Probably it was the first time FIFA decided to name the MVP of a football match live, right after the end of the game. And he would have deserved it also in the previous game when he scored three goals against Brazil. For me he remains the "hombre del partido", man of the match as metaphor of "man of football".
So, I was looking for a new interesting image. I knew all of them but then I started clicking on some, others opened, and I don't know how, I landed in a wonderful picture: Paolo Rossi with an unknown jersey (unknown for me) and an indoor soccer player. I could not even understand what kind of game it could have been. A football match? A training? A visit somewhere?
I felt very attracted by this picture. It made me curious. It reminded me of his picture with Perugia jersey not long before this picture was taken. But this time the jersey was dark. It was a indoor stadium and not an Italian stadium. The player close to him was unknown to me. The man behind them, the one smiling, was also unknown to me. But why was he smiling in their direction?
I used the picture in different search engines and I found a first answer: an article (one of the only two or three in Internet) where there was the story of Paolo Rossi training some weeks with Buffalo and playing one exhibition game. I have read many Italian names so I decided to look directly for the one on the photo.
Pat Occhiuto, sounds Italian, must be Italian, I thought. I found him in Facebook and the proof was his name, his city and his pictures of indoor soccer, similar pictures to the one with Paolo Rossi. I wrote him and I asked him if it was him the one who took the picture with Paolo and if he has time to write to me and join our group. Almost immediately he gave me his complete availability and I decided to have an interview and collect as much information I could.
Before inteviewing I searched for further information and found a radio programme in a website called "Soccer is a kick in the grass" where people told the story about De Rosa and Paolo Rossi's game with Buffalo.
My interview with Pat Occhiuto is available at a Youtube link which I will add at the end of this article. Now, without looking for every precise word, I prefer to write the summary of this story as it is in my mind. I will be glad if you will read it and if you will also watch the interview.
Why was Paolo Rossi in the United States? What was he doing there? I had just read that he played on October 30, 1980. So, it had to be during the suspension.
I recalled in my memory that once I heard in an interview that Paolo Rossi said that, as he was very decpressed by Italian football, he was thinking to join the soccer tournament in the United States. But I could never recall something like a real attempt made by him.
Pat Occhiuto, during my interview on March 7, 2021 in Zoom, told me his story, how he experienced it. He was a successful indoor soccer player of Buffalo Stallions and during his career he played in many leagues, also outdoor soccer included ASL in Canada, if I well remember.
He started his career at high school, registering the
record of goals scored in one season, he continued at the Erie Community
College (he was included in the Hall of Fame of the college in 1998) and then
at Fredonia (Hall of Fame in 1989).
At Buffalo Stallions he had the chance to play with Portuguese star Eusebio and then also with Stan Karasi, Yugoslavian national football team player at World Cup 1974 and many other famous players.
The team was managed by Italian manager Salvatore De Rosa. He was from Naples, a former football player and he was a real business man, always busy with his business. But in 1970 he was the manager of Ronchester Lancers and he won the NASL title. In Buffalo he was manager and vice-President.
The assistant coach was from Ghana at the first season and then, in the second season, it was former Juventus player Adolfo Gori. He played with Juventus from 1963 until 1968. The scout was Carlo Del Monte.
Salvatore De Rosa or, how they used to call him, just Sal,
used to know many important people. Pat Occhiuto could even recall when he was
guest at lunch at Sal's home. When he arrived and entered the house, there was
an unexpected surprise: also Claudia Cardinale was there.
This just to say that this entrepreneurial man was able to meet many people and create great projects, included the indoor soccer team project and training NASL teams.
Pat Occhiuto was not the only Italian-American in the team. There were at least 3-4 Italians, included Pat Ercoli, a great player whose father came from Civitanova Marche while he was born in Toronto. Occhiuto came from Cortale, in the region called Calabria, a region in South Italy, very close to Sicily and divided from Sicily only by the "Stretto di Messina".
Pat could not remember if Paolo joined Buffalo with
the thought to play and if he wanted to remain or not. He thought it was not
the case because there was another friend of Paolo, called Maurizio, who was
also there but mainly for business.
As I discovered the day after my interview, Pat was right: Paolo was in the United States with the intention to better know American soccer (indoor and outdoor) and to talk to Cosmos about the possibility to launch football shoes Lancer in North America. And also to talk about the possibility to play for New York Cosmos but this was not his first thought.
He needed also to leave Italy for a while after the hard months he experienced during the investigations made by the sports trials which condamned him for a 3 years suspension. The president of Lanerossi Vicenza wanted the best for him as always and it was him to push him to go abroad and relax for some weeks.
Pat Occhiuto also found an article from the Sports News Magazine of November 1, 1980. The day before Buffalo Stallions defeated Philadelphia Fever: "Stallions cool Fever".
Paolo Rossi played for his first time in indoor soccer. The boards along the playing field ensured that the ball was always in play, this meaning less breaks, less opportunity to breath and find new energy. Fast and frequent substitutions, fast play, tough carpet above hockey playing fields.
Paolo Rossi managed to score one goal in the second
quarter and to play a good game. The final result was 9-8 for Buffalo. As he
also wrote later in a book, it was a great experience for him.
Pat Occhiuto: "It was a totally different game for Rossi but it was as if he always played indoor, no big deal. Quick one, two, not holding on to the ball. You could tell he was a world class player". These are the words Pat said in another interview.
Back to De Rosa. Occhiuto told me that one day he went to his training session and De Rosa asked him: "What do you think if you have Paolo Rossi as team mate in the next game?". Occhiuto thought it was a joke. He knew that De Rosa had many important contacts, but could he just invite to Buffalo the second best player overall (and the best young player) of the World Cup 1978?
He did. And Paolo Rossi kept his word. He trained in
Buffalo and played the exhibition game. As he wrote then in his book, it was an
important period for him. He could tank new energy, live normally, walk without
being recognized, although many people recognized him anyway because of the
promotion made by De Rosa. People saw him and thought: "the economic value
of that guy is much higher of any American football or baseball player".
He ate cheeseburgers, visited the Niagara Falls, visited New York.
As Pat Occhiuto said to me, Paolo Rossi enjoyed above all being together with his new team mates, training with them, having fun, focusing on the game and again being with his mates. They went to the mall and had walks together. The last night they all went to a disco called Mullingan's and had fun. And before leaving, at 11:00 AM, he visited his team again before the training session and brought champagne for all. They drank a glass all together wishing him the best for his return to Italy and for his future.
They knew from the beginning who was Paolo Rossi, an Italian football champion. When he left, they saw only a good guy who impressed them for his humility, for being down to earth, simple, friendly and "simpatico" as we say in Italian. As another great man with Italian origin would sing, I dont need to write his name, these are "the ties that bind". Paolo Rossi had to go back to Italy. Yes, he could have played somewhere else without missing 3 (then became 2) years of his career. But his inner contract brought him back to Italy. He wanted to face that negative moment and come back from a historical injustice. It had been condamned for having done nothing.
Back to Italy, the trials confirmed that he was not guilty, as there were no proofs of him being guilty, just the words said by a dishonest man who needed to accuse honest players like Rossi in order to have more hope to show that they are the less dishonest of all.
It was also confirmed by the two accusing men: both confirmed some years later, that Rossi had nothing to do with it.
Even so, the sports institutions did not decide to reopen the sports trial and the accused people and teams remained guilty for them. So Rossi, who spent 2 years without playing. He trained with Juventus, played three games in Serie A in 1982 and after one month he won the World Cup and became the top scorer of the most important football competition.
The day when Italy defeated Brazil, De Rosa, Occhiuto, Ercoli, Del Monte and all Buffalo players were at De Rosa's house. They hoped for a comeback of Rossi who was not to be seen in the first four games of the World Cup between Italy and Poland first, and then Peru, Cameroon and Argentina.
He scored the first, 1-0 for Italy. Here there was a
great joy for everyone. At least, should Italy be eliminated, Rossi has made an
historical goal. 1-1 Brazil. 2-1 Rossi, here again, this can be his day. 2-2
Brazil. And again: Rossi, 3-2. Everybody went nuts. De Rosa wore Paolo's jersey
used when he played for Buffalo.
Their friend won then the World Cup and they were all very proud of him and of the Azzurri.
One year later Pat Occhiuto went to Toronto and
watched the friendly game between Toronto Blizzard and Juventus. At the end of
the game he wanted to see Paolo Rossi but the security did not allow him to
enter to the locker rooms. He gave his photo with Paolo to a security and the
man disappeared. He wanted to show him that he knows Paolo. Nothing happened
for 15 minutes.
After 15 minutes, Paolo Rossi joined his friend Pat Occhiuto and gave him a big hug. He had not forgotten him. He did not forget his team mate from Buffalo. The ties that bind.
At the end of my interview with Pat Occhiuto, I asked him when has his family moved to USA from Italy.
His answer: today, 51 years ago. On March 7, 1970.
And I replied to him: and today, March 7, 2021, you are back to Italy because now you have many new friends.
We will meet in Italy for an event dedicated to Paolo Rossi one day. Or I will visit him in Buffalo.
These are the ties that bind.
Nobody can break the ties that bind.
March 10, 2021
Youtube link of interview: