x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

On top of the world - briefly

Schillaci will always be remembered as the hero of Italia '90 which coincided with the brief peak of his career.

Salvatore Schillaci beats Jimmy Banks, of the US, to the ball during the 1990 World Cup in Italy.
Salvatore Schillaci beats Jimmy Banks, of the US, to the ball during the 1990 World Cup in Italy.

"Schillaci" has become football shorthand for the One-Summer-Wonder, the player who soars for a brief period, that, happily, coincides with a major tournament. Salvatore "Toto" Schillaci would rather be remembered for things other than just the 1990 World Cup, but he would acknowledge that the peak of his career was relatively brief for the fame and status it brought him in Italian football. And that he has not done too badly out of the five weeks he enjoyed in the international limelight.

To report that Schillaci came from nowhere to star for the host nation at Italia '90 would be inaccurate. Schillaci, born in Sicily, had signed for Juventus, Italy's most successful club, at the beginning of the previous season. That was a big move up. He was 24, so no child prodigy, and had played all his football in Serie B, the Italian second division. He took the step up to Serie A well, scoring 15 goals in what was then the toughest league in Europe for a striker, and his first season with Juve earned him a call-up to the national squad for the World Cup Italy was to host.

When the tournament began, he had yet to win his first cap. In Italy's opening game, against Austria, with the score at 0-0, he was brought on as a substitute. He scored. By the final group match, he was in the starting line-up and he duly scored his second international goal. Schillaci was on a roll and he was a popular hero, with his obvious appetite for hard work, chasing down half-chances and harrying opponents. He also looked vivid on television, a shortish man with a receding hairline and an expressive face that became especially animated when celebrating goals.

Goals in the first knockout round, against Uruguay, and the quarter-final, against the Republic of Ireland, confirmed Schillaci's Midas touch. In the semi-final against Argentina, he scored again, although Italy would be stuck at 1-1 after 120 minutes and the South Americans would win the tie on penalties. Still, Italy would take one trophy from the tournament, Schillaci's Golden Boot after he became the top scorer with a sixth goal in the third-place play-off against England.

After that, Schillaci played nine more times for Italy, but scored only one more international goal. Nor did a move from Juve to Inter Milan recapture his goalscoring touch. His fame still made him a catch, though, and Jubilo Iwata, the Japanese club, were pleased to recruit a player who would raise the profile of the J-League in 1994. He retired five years later, to become, briefly, a television personality. He was indeed a global celebrity. A champion Australian racehorse was named Schillaci, an Irish drinks company used his image in advertisements and a generation of footballers adopted him as one of their idols.

In fact, if you listen hard on Friday, you might hear some South African players in the first match of the 2010 World Cup calling out to their best footballer, Steven Pienaar, by his nickname "Schillo". Pienaar picked up that sobriquet while a schoolboy, because his friends reckoned he was as good as the great Toto Schillaci, star of Italia 90. @Email:sports@thenational.ae