Italy, March 20th 2016, Mediaset Studio’s, Milan: Sebastiano Rossi sits there, ashen faced, his tall physique meant his cheek bones promoted the paleness of his face. He is well dressed but his black suit and high collared white shirt give him the look of an Italian noble man whose daughter has just run off with the stable boy. He is look is one of concern and an inability to accept the reality. The former Milan goalkeeper is going through some very private trauma in a very public arena and when Juventus’s ‘Gigi’ Buffon celebrated breaking the clean sheet record held by Rossi the anguish was plain to see.
In the post-game round up Sebastiano did take time to praise the Juventus custodian but he also couldn’t hide his disappointment. After all this was his record, one thing that he could proudly state was his and nobody else’s. Now he had to analyse his successor, Buffon had kept the ball out for 930 minutes but for Rossi it wasn’t the same. “Some of the attackers were a lot harder to mark back then” he quipped when answering his fellow pundit Ciro Ferrara. Perhaps he had a point, back then as he said, he had to face the likes of Jurgen Klinsmann, Gabriel Batistuta, Beppe Signori and Gianluca Vialli and that is just to name a few. Even in the second thought bubble Faustino Asprilla, Ronaldo, Gianfranco Zola and Roberto Mancini pop up.
It could be thought that Rossi was simply bitter, after all what professional sportsman likes losing anything but for the 52-year-old it was much more than that. The reasoning was in one part childlike but in another completely understandable and either way it was terribly deep rooted. Buffon after all had everything, he was already known as possibly Italy’s best ever goalkeeper, maybe some still argued for Dino Zoff but he was his equal at least. He had won a World Cup, seven (or nine depending on your leanings) Serie A titles, two Coppa Italia’s, six Supercoppa Italia’s and a UEFA Cup with Parma, did he really need this to? Rossi himself was not without honours however, of course not he had five Serie A titles to his name, three Supercoppa Italia’s, and Intercontinental Cup, a UEFA Super Cup and a Champions League, Buffon certainly didn’t have that, so what’s the problem?
Firstly, Buffon has 52 individual awards, Rossi has one. The Bianconeri goalkeeper has over 165 national caps, the Rossoneri shot stopper never managed a single one. More importantly however, is that everybody will remember the great ‘Gigi’, whilst Sebastiano is in danger of becoming a name that is only occasionally remembered with a smile, as people instead talk about Walter Zenga, Gianluca Pagliuca and Angelo Peruzzi from back then. This is why on that cloudy March day in Turin the former Milanese custodian felt the pain. He was losing one of the last things that made him memorable. Vastly underrated in arguably one of the world’s best ever defensive units. Paolo Maldini, Franco Baresi, Mauro Tassotti and Alessandro Costacurta are remembered well so why not him?
Rossi was perhaps a victim of circumstance it is true. When Calcio ruled the world there were indeed a plethora of goalkeepers who clashed with some of the aforementioned strikers. As he only moved to Milan from Cesena in 1990 it is understandable he missed out on the World Cup squad that year but after failure to qualify for Euro 1992, it was perhaps a surprise that he was overlooked for the USA 94 squad. Rossi had been winning pretty much everything with the Rossoneri (including the Champions League) yet Arrigo Sacchi left him out of the squad, a fact made even more bizarre as this was the coach who had brought him to Milan. Instead he had to watch Sampdoria’s Gianluca Pagliuca, Lazio’s Luca Marchegiani and Parma’s Luca Bucci travel instead. He was called up subsequently by Sacchi but never used.
The failure to ever make an appearance under any Italian coach will remain a mystery. The 6ft 6” keeper by no means lacking in comparison to his competition. The giant frame of Rossi was made for playing between the posts and his positioning was his major strength. If you compare him to Inter’s Walter Zenga ‘the spider’, you will find two polar opposites of how to keep goal well. Whilst Zenga was almost spring loaded, making him able to pull off the spectacular Rossi would often look less jaw dropping as he went about is craft. Many of the balls at him would seem to stop dead as he brought them into his chest or simply drop down quickly to gather the ball. This was a man who already knew the trajectory of the ball and would be well placed for its arrival. Unlike keepers such as Zenga and Bucci, he would not have to acrobatically recover as he was proactive in his position. This did not mean he would not pull off the odd spectacular save, of course he did, but they always looked ungainly and awkward.
Known as "l'ascensore umano" the human lift, he was very able on crosses and knew when to come off his line and when to stay. This was also another of his major strengths and memories from ‘The Dream Team’ of the early 1990’s, often have the oppositions attack thwarted by an on rushing Rossi. His ability to get out quickly, stay tall and either block or gather the ball was often followed by quick distribution, a component essential in Milan’s zonal marking system. One of Rossi’s other trademarks that often was exhibited in these one on one positions, was the ability to tip the ball around the post, throwing his huge frame to the ground with considerable ease and lighting speed. This image of the Milanese keeper stretched out low (normally wearing a cap) symbolises goalkeeping at San Siro in those days.
No goalkeeper is perfect however and Rossi also had flaws. These were not commonplace but often came in games where he had been ‘wound up’ by the opposition. As mentioned his positional play demanded he took up the place he needed in the box especially on corners and if the opposition striker wanted to push or shove him they were in for a surprise. His physical nature meant he had no problems in involving himself in an altercation and this was evident when coming off his line. A game against Lazio, saw him get away with attempting to knee an onrushing forward in the head, when he came for the ball he was going to get it. His bravery was tinged with a pinch of recklessness but it certainly didn’t impact Milan negatively enough to be a problem. The only memorable issue was latter in his career in a game against Perugia when the Rossoneri conceded a penalty. Hidetoshi Nakata scored a penalty against him and when his team mate Cristian Bucchi went to get the ball from the back of the next he was hit by Rossi. The keeper’s frustration and subsequent actions saw him receive a five game ban and he could hardly argue against it.
For the most part however, Sebastiano was an integral part of Fabio Capello’s ‘Invincibles’ who went unbeaten for 58 games, won four out of five Scudetti and the 1994 Champions League. The goalkeeper was a major asset to an already magnificent defence and time after time thwarted some of the best attackers in world football.
If you ask a Milan fan, who is the Rossoneri’s best goalkeeper of all time and the answer almost always will be Sebastiano Rossi. Ask any other fan in Italy who their top Serie A goalkeepers of all time would be and only the astute would have them in their top 10. For some reason he has been consistently overlooked, whilst he was playing and after his career. Dino Zoff and Gigi Buffon aside there is still a long list of keepers who are ingrained in the memory but Rossi often falls behind in this order. His character was certainly not bland and whilst his positioning meant that was often unspectacular his ability was unquestionable.
When he lost the record for keeping the longest clean sheet to Buffon you could understand his frustration. ‘Gigi’ after all already will be remembered as a great, did he really need this record. This was the one thing that Rossi knew he would be remembered for, the one thing that was his in his own right. Whilst he may lament this, he should not underestimate his career. His stature as the greatest Milan goalkeeper of all time perhaps should be lauded more but it is still a fact. When arguably the greatest club team of all time where beating all before them Rossi was their immovable last line of defence.
Richard is @Gentleman_Ultra.