In these days of superclubs and talk of European Super Leagues, little thought is given to those teams who arrive in Serie A from below, with any standout players from those squads given short shrift in terms of making a success of themselves at the higher level.
Perhaps it was ever thus, but there have been some notable exceptions to that rule, few more notable than the Vicenza side of the late 1970s, with few players set on such a journey to the stars as their figurehead Paolo Rossi.
Although he finished Vicenza’s Serie B campaign as top scorer with 21 goals, Rossi had gone into that season considered a winger, being moved up front by coach Giovan Battista Fabbri in place of usual striker Alessandro Vitali. The move paid off handsomely.
Perhaps his appreciation of where crosses were likely to end up gave him an advantage, or maybe it was just the fruition of his instincts, but Rossi was to go on to become one of the most celebrated strikers in Italian football history – able to find space, fire shots away and, crucially, hit the target from almost any situation.
At the higher level, though, the tactic wasn’t initially successful. For five games, Vicenza toiled without a win, scoring just twice during that period. One of those was a Rossi penalty, his first strike of the campaign coming at the fourth attempt, a 3-1 defeat at Milan.
All that changed in Bergamo at the end of October with a visit to unbeaten Atalanta. Although the local press had warned the hosts to beware of ‘the black beast’ that was Vicenza, Fabbri’s compact tactics worked wonders on the day. As a sole attacking threat, Rossi claimed two goals, the first a lovely flicked header, to go with a brace from Mario Guidetti.
Victories, and goals, flowed after that win. A first home triumph of the season followed, Rossi and Valeriano Prestanti putting Lazio to the sword before a victory in Florence and a landmark 4-3 against Roma that left Vicenza in third and Serie A, and its press, with the impression that Lanerossi were the real deal; sure their defence wasn’t great, but with Rossi top scorer in Serie A, they were able to overcome that issue and went from strength to strength.
Having gone without losing a game until the end of 1977, Vicenza ended their winter with a 0-0 draw against table-topping Juventus ensuring Fabbri’s side began the second half of their campaign in third place – Rossi had 12 goals in those first 15 games, quite a statement after his barren start.
Nothing much changed as the season wore on, with the Biancorossi remaining just as hard to beat and finding the net with impressive regularity, and crucially Paolo Rossi retained his form.
An early setback in the shape of a second defeat of the campaign by Inter at the beginning of February could well have been the nail in the coffin for Vicenza’s Scudetto hopes, leaving Juventus with a four-point lead in the standings but there was an immediate reaction from the Serie A newcomers with a draw at 1976 Champions Torino.
Vicenza were winning matches and winning friends, something never more apparent than after their win at Lazio in March. Although pegged back by Renzo Garlaschelli’s header midway through the first half, the visitors surged forward in the second period to help Rossi claim a hat-trick – his first in Serie A. Although the defeat plunged their side a little further into the relegation battle, the crowd at the Stadio Olimpico rose at the end of the match to applaud the performance of Rossi, and Vicenza, now wearing the title of ‘Queen of the Provinces’.
Still there were more highlights to come; crushing wins at Napoli and at home to Perugia helped keep the side well up in the table and, though a final day defeat at Juventus meant the season ended with a disappointment, Fabbri’s side had done enough to secure second spot, and finished the campaign as top scorers too.
For Rossi, too, it was a dream campaign and he finished with 24 goals (three more than the previous season in Serie B) and a spot in the 1978 World Cup squad; the Azzurri finished fourth, and Rossi grabbed three goals, and a place in the All-Star team – he was to have better World Cups. Nobody had scored more Serie A goals in a season than Rossi since Luis Vinicio in 1965/66 in another Vicenza side, that time finishing sixth.
Queen of the Provinces they may have been, but Vicenza were dethroned in rough fashion and their crown jewels sold on. Relegation came but a season later, and though Rossi stayed and contributed 15 goals to that campaign, he moved on to Juventus rather than returning to Serie B.
There have been returns; the side of Marcelo Otero in the mid-1990s, and Luca Toni’s early 2000s team, but Vicenza have never struck out in Serie A as boldly and spectacularly as they did in the late 1970s, and never have been the same side since. Now battling to win promotion back to Serie B, it seems unlikely that they will be any time soon.