x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

World Cup 1990 revisited: Italians find an unlikely hero in Salvatore Schillaci

In looking back at the 1990 World Cup, John McAuley pinpoints Italy's 'Toto' Schillaci as the standout player of the tournament.

Italian forward Salvatore Schillaci against USA at the 1990 World Cup. AFP Photo
Italian forward Salvatore Schillaci against USA at the 1990 World Cup. AFP Photo

There were moments during Italia ’90 – and plenty of them, too – when it seemed that scoring a goal had never meant as much to a footballer as it did to Salvatore “Toto” Schillaci.

The little Sicilian, eyes bulging, mouth agape and arms flailing, would argue his exuberance was merited, for his was an improbable journey from sixth-choice striker to the tournament’s Golden Boot. From Serie B to the World Cup semi-finals in less than a year.

Before that opening Group A encounter for the hosts, against Austria in Rome, Schillaci had one international cap to his name.

He had spent the majority of his career in Italy’s second tier with Messina, but in the summer of 1989 had earned a transfer to a renascent Juventus.

His goals helped his club clinch the Coppa Italia and Uefa Cup, and convinced Azeglio Vicini to include him in Italy’s 22-man squad for the World Cup.

It was accepted wisdom that Schillaci would be there merely as a back-up, secondary to Gianluca Vialli, Andrea Carnavale, Roberto Baggio and others.

Within four minutes of coming on as a substitute in the stalemate with Austria, though, Schillaci began to pen the most implausible of tales.

He met Vialli’s right-wing cross and thundered a header past Klaus Lindenberger in the opposition goal. Italy had a precious opening victory; Schillaci, wheeling away in frenzied delight, had his trademark celebration.

By the final group game, Schillaci was entrusted as one half of Italy’s new strikeforce, working in tandem alongside Baggio.

The duo quickly repaid Vicini’s faith, both scoring goals in a 2-0 triumph against Czechoslovakia. Again, Schillaci scored with a header.

The Juve forward continued his remarkable story into the last-16 tussle with Uruguay. It had been a lacklustre affair, but Schillaci offered a rare moment of illumination when he thundered a shot high into the goal from outside the penalty area.

Then, the winner against the Republic of Ireland and the first hammer blow in a charged semi-final defeat, on penalties, to Argentina.

Both goals, rebounds from goalkeeping parries, underlined Schillaci’s knack of being in the right place at the right time.

It perhaps summed up that frantic period as Italy’s underdog-turned-frontman, as after the World Cup, he would score only one more goal.

There was still time for another in Italy, however, a penalty in the third-place play-off with England to seal the Golden Boot with six goals. The Golden Ball – the award recognising the tournament’s most outstanding player – swiftly followed.

Italy may have failed on home soil, but for a few fleeting moments, the banners and the chants hailing an unlikely hero conveyed pride, not pain. Grazie, Toto.

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