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It is one of the most iconic images of Italia 90, along with Paul Gascoigne’s tears and Claudio Caniggia being almost cut in two. The wild, staring eyes alive with an intense, almost other-worldly, glare. The mouth wide open, caught in the midst of an ecstatic howl. The arms taut, veins bulging, and hands spread wide in delirium and disbelief in equal measures. It became a familiar view through the four weeks that came to define the career, and the life, of Salvatore ‘Toto’ Schillaci.

As the World Cup progressed, the wins continued and the goals kept raining in, while the man who came from apparently nowhere to take his country to the brink of glory became one of the most famous footballers in the world for that brief, glorious time. Those bulging eyes, that stare, those celebrations. Those of us watching couldn’t help but be caught up in the romanticism of it all. Schillaci was an unlikely hero for the Azzurri, whose moment in the sunshine was as brief as it was remarkable.

That he was even involved at all was unlikely enough. Sure, he had just enjoyed a very good debut season with Juventus. He was their top scorer with 15 goals, helping the Old Lady to victory in the Coppa Italia and the UEFA Cup. But in international terms he wasn’t even on the radar. At the age of 25 he had just played his first season in Serie A, and had only ever been involved with Italy once – a friendly match in March 1990, away to Switzerland. In a squad featuring the attacking talents of the likes of Gianluca Vialli, Roberto Mancini, Roberto Baggio and Andrea Carnevale, there wasn’t much room for Schillaci.

He had fought against the odds before, however. Growing up in relative poverty in a desperately poor neighbourhood in Palermo, Sicily, the young Salvatore had come through significant hardship. He didn’t complete school, and even his growing football ability had limited opportunity to flourish as there were no parks or football pitches in his impoverished surroundings on which to hone his skills. Schillaci and his friends used to play regularly on one particular street corner, and even in those surroundings, he quickly gained a reputation as a genuine talent. The locals would often look out of their windows and balconies to watch him dominating the street kickabouts below.

His burgeoning talent was developed at local amateur side Amat Palermo, for whom he was paid the equivalent of around £1.50 for each goal he scored. His exploits didn’t stay hidden for long, and within a year he had secured a professional contract with Messina, in Serie C2 at the time, at the opposite end of the island of Sicily. Schillaci enjoyed seven relatively successful seasons there, plugging away without really coming to much wider attention. His early professional career was decent, if unspectacular. He helped Messina into Serie B in the mid-1980s, though the heights of the top flight would remain a distant dream. 

By the 1988/89 season, Messina were led by the mercurial coaching of the Czech-Italian Zdeněk Zeman, who was in the midst of his own remarkable rise. It was under Zeman that Schillaci really began to flourish. He racked up 23 goals in 35 games that season to record what would remain his best-ever goals return. Like Zeman, who was to move on to Serie A with Foggia, Schillaci was now getting himself noticed.

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A £3 million move followed that summer to Juventus, a team very much in a rebuilding phase following the waning of their great side of the mid-80s. Those 15 goals he scored for Juventus in 1989/90 left him trailing only the highly vaunted talents of Marco van Basten, Roberto Baggio and Diego Maradona in the scoring charts; no mean feat for a debutant in what was at the time very much the world’s top league. And yet he remained well down the international pecking order. There was no particular clamour for his inclusion in the World Cup squad given the talent and experience at Italy’s disposal.

Azeglio Vicini, the coach of the national team and a man steeped in the caution first approach of Italian football, chose to include Schillaci in his final 22-man squad, however, opting to take an additional attacker rather than extra cover for elsewhere on the pitch. Schillaci was in, but he was very much the final selection, the opportunistic final call to cater for a seemingly unlikely ‘what if’ scenario. He was essentially the fifth-choice striker, behind Vialli, Carnevale, Mancini and Inter’s Aldo Serena. Add in the sleek, stylish skills of Baggio – the golden boy of the new generation who could play up front or sit behind the strikers – and the prospects for Schillaci seeing any meaningful action seemed remote.

The man himself was just delighted to be included, and was realistic about his prospects. Just making it onto the bench – in 1990 only five of the non-starting squad members could be named as substitutes – would be an achievement, he felt. Realistically, he expected to be watching the action from the stands as an unused squad member, at least until injuries or suspensions opened up a potential opportunity. But fate had other ideas for him.

During the squad’s preparations in the familiar surroundings of the Juventus training facilities in Turin, Schillaci began to convince Vicini that he had more to offer than merely being the last reserve.

Italy began their World Cup campaign under the floodlights in Rome’s Stadio Olimpico against a dogged but limited Austria. It was meant to be a comfortable opening for the Azzurri; a nice opener to ease their way into the tournament. Schillaci had impressed Vicini during the team’s preparations to the extent that he was included in the match day squad, taking his place on the bench as one of two attacking substitutes alongside Baggio, leapfrogging Mancini and Serena in the pecking order in the process. Starting up front was Carnevale with Sampdoria’s Vialli in support.

It was an intense night. The heat of the day had given over to a sweaty, sweltering evening. The packed crowd were in vociferous form, willing their heroes on to what they expected to be an inevitable victory. The stands were a riot of colour and noise, with the red, white and green of the Italian tricolore being waved all around in every stand. The nation anticipated and expected a win, but on the pitch the team were wilting.

Original Series  |  The Football Italia Years

That’s not to say Italy weren’t creating numerous chances. In many ways they were all over the Austrians, but time and again they were failing when it mattered most. For all their domination and impressive build up play, when each chance came along they just couldn’t find a way past the acrobatic, neon-clad Austrian goalkeeper, Klaus Lindenberger. As the efforts rained in on his goal he leapt from one post to the next, clawing away shot after shot. The atmosphere, already tense, was becoming increasingly edgy.

The tournament may have been only a day old, but it had already seen Argentina and Maradona succumb to the rough-house delights of Cameroon. As the minutes ticked by, the desperation from the stands was transmitting onto the pitch as the players frantically tried to avoid a similar fate.

With just quarter of an hour remaining, and the score still resolutely stuck at 0-0, Vicini scanned the options on his bench. In need of a breakthrough, he overlooked the mercurial skills of Baggio, a man who at this point was still felt to be an unreliable luxury for the national team, yet to fully prove his worth. Perhaps coming to that decision was the fact that Baggio had spent the World Cup build-up embroiled in a controversial, riot-inducing transfer from Fiorentina to Juventus. Instead, he told Schillaci to ready himself for what would be his first competitive action for his country. It was a life-changing decision.

Schillaci readily admitted afterwards how scared he felt as he ran onto the pitch and into the world’s glare. He replaced the misfiring Carnevale, and took his place up front with the encouraging words of his Juventus teammate and fellow substitute, Stefano Tacconi, still ringing in his ears: “Go on and score a header.“. It was remarkably prophetic. Schillaci hadn’t scored with his head all season, but within minutes of coming on, Vialli sent a curling, tempting cross into the box. Schillaci rose in between the floundering defenders and powered a bullet header past Lindenberger.

The instant the net bulged and the crowd roared in a mixture of delight and relief, everything changed. Schillaci was mobbed by his teammates, as Italy saw out an anxious 1-0 win. From the fringes, he had suddenly become the right man in the right place at the right time. For now, he remained the backup option, coming off the bench without scoring in Italy’s second group match – another edgy 1-0 win, this time over the United States.

Italy’s nervy, misfiring opening to the tournament had led to increased calls for changes to the line-up. More vigour, more invention, and crucially, more decisiveness in front of goal was required. Schillaci had come off the bench to good effect in both matches thus far, and the clamour was for him to start the final group match with Czechoslovakia. Similarly, the so far unused substitute Baggio was being called on to reinvigorate the stuttering side. Vicini bowed to the weight of public opinion and partnered Schillaci and Baggio up front, dropping Vialli and Carnevale from the matchday squad altogether.

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What followed saw Italy belatedly lay down their first serious marker of the tournament. Schillaci and Baggio both scored, the latter scoring one of the goals of the tournament, and Italy ran out 2-0 winners to top their group. What had begun as a stuttering, stumbling campaign littered with missed opportunities and riddled with nerves was suddenly one full of confidence and optimism. That feeling was symbolised by the new front pairing. “Italy in delirium with Schillaci – Baggio,” hailed the following day’s headline in the Gazzetta Dello Sport. “How beautiful you are.”

By hook or by crook, Italy had now found their ideal line-up, and it continued to flourish as the tournament entered the knockout rounds. Schillaci was now bursting with confidence, a fact exemplified by his magnificent strike against Uruguay in the round of 16. Receiving the ball on the turn outside the penalty area, he hit a ferocious first time effort that rifled into the Uruguayan net. And with that strike, he had gone from the edge of the squad to being the man all of Italy was pinning their hopes on. The man from the tough breeding grounds of Sicily, an area whose natives were generally looked down upon by the more affluent sections of Italian society, was carrying the weight of an expectant nation on his shoulders.

Schillaci struck again to eliminate Ireland in the quarter-finals, which merely reinforced the view that he could do no wrong in front of goal. His status as the hero and saviour of the nation was set in stone. He had become indispensable and undroppable. As the goals kept coming there was no need to give much heed to the concern that Schillaci’s presence had unbalanced a team that had been developed over time in preparation for the World Cup. Whereas before there had been a number of planned paths to goal and methods of approach, now everything was becoming increasingly focused on Schillaci. While the goals kept coming, there was nothing to worry about.

His ascent from outsider to national hero brought frequent comparisons to Paolo Rossi, the goalscoring sensation of Italy’s triumphant 1982 World Cup-winning side. The valid comparison lay in the unexpected scoring feats of a player not originally expected to be a part of the squad, let alone the key component in it. However, Rossi had been a significantly higher profile player ahead of his tournament than Schillaci was before Italia 90.

One was a controversial inclusion for moral reasons, plus a troubling lack of match fitness, while the other was simply not thought of as being as good as other striking options. How quickly views can change. “Rossi was a champion,” said Schillaci, playing down the comparison. “I am an ordinary, modest guy. I just hope I can continue to do what I have been doing.”

All of Italy hoped the same, and in the semi-final against Argentina he did, opening the scoring once again with an instinctive finish after Argentinian keeper Sergio Goycoechea couldn’t hold onto a shot. The same story seemed to be playing out again as Italy – still yet to concede in the tournament – were apparently well on their way to the final. The wild eyes, the dark stare, the bulging veins, the mouth agape; it was all there again as a nation believed their new-found hero really could take them all the way.

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If Schillaci’s story was to be the fairy tale it appeared destined to be, that would have been the way of it. His goal would have secured another win as Italy marched on to the final and a date with West Germany. Argentina had other ideas. After Claudio Caniggia became the first person to beat Walter Zenga in the tournament, Argentina went on to win on penalties, breaking the hearts of the hosts and ending the Schillaci-inspired Azzurri run.

At times it had seemed too good to be true. That a player could come from seemingly nowhere to lead one of the greatest of football nations to World Cup glory was surely the stuff of wild dreams, not reality. So it proved, amidst the tears and trauma of that desperate Naples evening when the dream died. Schillaci didn’t take a penalty in the shoot-out, later insisting that a leg injury meant he couldn’t kick properly and that he wasn’t a great penalty taker. He did take one a few days later to win the third placed playoff against England and win himself the golden boot.

That was some small solace, but the pain of defeat was raw. He and his teammates sat silently in the dressing room for some time after the loss, Schillaci recalling he spent the time smoking and crying. The dream was over, and though he didn’t know it yet, for Schillaci his moment in the spotlight was almost done too.

The following season, now with the added weight of hero-status expectations, the goals began to dry up. He scored a mere five league goals in the year after his World Cup exploits, and the following season would be little better as he found the net just six times. His international career had stalled too, only scoring once more for the Azzurri to add to those delightfully dramatic strikes in the World Cup.

A failed move to Inter followed before he stepped out of the limelight by moving to play in Japan. It suited him. It certainly seemed to suit him much more than the unflinching glare of being the World Cup hero who had risen to heights that were beyond anyone’s expectations, and likely beyond his true level. For a month in the summer of 1990 it had all come together for Schillaci, and like Italy’s ultimately doomed campaign, it was never meant to last. His international career lasted just 16 appearances and seven goals, but it was the six goals in seven matches that summer that would always define his career.

It was his only moment in the sun; a brief time when Salvatore Schillaci became one of the most recognised players in the world, and oh so nearly took his besotted nation all the way to the ultimate prize. Schillaci belonged to Italia 90 as much as Italia 90 belonged to him; he is inextricably linked with the tournament. For those four weeks in the summer of 1990, he was at the centre of the world. Everything he did seemed to come off as he scaled epic heights, though unable to nudge Italy into the final they deserved. 

His career may never have lived up to those few weeks in the pressure cooker of the World Cup, but the memories of that time burn as brightly as ever. It is somehow all the more glorious for the fact that his spell in the spotlight was so very brief but timed to perfection. The image of those wild eyes will forever be etched in the memories of those who witnessed them 

By Aidan Williams    @yad_williams