When Paolo Rossi was named in Italy’s squad ahead of the 1982 FIFA World Cup in Spain, there was outcry from fans and media alike. After all, the striker had only weeks earlier returned to playing after a two-year ban for his involvement in a betting scandal, and had managed just one goal in three appearances for Juventus.
As history happily informs us, the 25-year-old Rossi spearheaded Italy’s charge to what was to be their third World Cup victory. His six goals earned him the Golden Boot, and he was also named winner of the Golden Ball (the tournament’s best player).
All this from a man who had enjoyed limited playing time before heading to Spain, and was being written off by many outside of the Italian camp. But, as Italy coach at the time Enzo Bearzot later said: “I knew that if Rossi wasn't in Spain, I wouldn't have had an opportunist inside the penalty box.”
In other words, Bearzot had faith in what Rossi could do, and not necessarily what he had been doing in the weeks leading into the tournament. Sound familiar?
Fast forward 32 years, and USA head coach Jurgen Klinsmann has included Jozy Altidore in his preliminary squad of 30, despite the striker enduring what many would label his worst-ever season in professional soccer.
After a $12 million move from Dutch club AZ Alkmaar to English Premier League side Sunderland last summer, 24-year-old Altidore did little to enhance his reputation, netting just one goal in 31 appearances. Of those appearances, only 19 were as a starter and he was overshadowed by young English striker Connor Wickham, who chipped in with five goals in half as many games.
Altidore rarely shined at the Stadium of Light, and even suffered the ignominy of his own fans cheering during a league game back in December when he was substituted out of the match. And yet, despite the misery endured in England, Klinsmann still selected Altidore, because he knows the qualities this young player possesses.
"I think it's very important that you understand the kind of phase a player is in right now, what phase of his career he's in, what he's learned so far throughout his career and what he's able then to do also in the future time,” Klinsmann explained.
“I think Jozy's still a very young player and he's going through a learning curve, and one big learning curve was this year at Sunderland. And it will continue to be Sunderland as long as nothing happens after the World Cup, he gets transferred or whatever.”
England has not been a happy hunting ground for Altidore. His previous attempt to take the Premier League by storm also back-fired, with just one goal in 28 appearances for Hull City during the 2009-2010 season. But let’s put this into some sort of context. Altidore’s choice of Premier League clubs has not helped his cause. Both struggled in England’s top flight, where the defense will have been busier than the strikers, and service will have been limited.
After all, Altidore can score goals, and the stats back up that statement. A paltry two goals from a combined total of 56 appearances at two struggling clubs in England, compared to 39 from 67 games when in the Eredivisie in the Netherlands.
And it’s that kind of form, coupled with his performances for the national side, which has convinced Klinsmann that Altidore has a part to play in Brazil.
”We have worked with him the last three years, [moving] a much younger player into a more mature player,” Klinsmann added. “He’s played very, very good games for us, scoring very important goals for us, but he is still building. Jozy is in his development phase. You know, Jozy is not built yet, Jozy has not reached his potential yet.
"So our job as coaches is to help him reach his highest potential. I think the next two months will be a big part of that next learning curve for Jozy Altidore. I always said that he has so many upsides, he hasn't shown it yet in different places maybe. I think we saw a big part of those upsides in the World Cup qualifying and in some friendlies as well.”
That kind of talk will be music to Altidore’s ears, which have been subjected to jeers and taunts during his uncomfortable year in England. Opportunity knocks for the former New York Red Bulls player who, like most goal-getters, thrives on confidence and knowing you have the support of your coach.
“We coaches are looking forward to having him in camp and to bring our influence into this whole next step, and we believe that Jozy can play a very big World Cup this summer in Brazil,” Klinsmann continued. “Obviously, he has to work hard these next couple of weeks to confirm our trust and confirm our support, which we think he will do absolutely. I think he's still a player to be developed. He’s not there yet."
As a former striker himself, Klinsmann can spot an attacking talent when he sees one. And at a World Cup, you need players of all shapes and sizes, for all kinds of opposition. You need options. The ability to mix ‘n’ match is vital, and Altidore’s size and strength cannot be ignored, particularly with Ghana in the USA’s group.
Being named in the 30-man squad is, of course, only the first step to Brazil, but after the season Altidore’s had, there will be few in camp with more of a point to prove.