He came out of nowhere to hit national headlines, yet his meteoric rise ended as quickly as it began. This is the story of Salvatore ‘Totò’ Schillaci, the hero of Italia ‘90, as told by Luca Cetta.
It was seen as the first step towards World Cup glory. Rome was buzzing on June 9th, 1990, eagerly anticipating Italy’s match against Austria that evening, but not expecting anything like the events a day earlier when Cameroon upset World Cup holders Argentina in Milan. Gianluca Vialli was Coach Azeglio Vicini’s number one choice in attack. The Sampdoria man was joined by Andrea Carnevale. Between the two, four first half opportunities were spurned. Carlo Ancelotti struck the woodwork from distance and Giuseppe Giannini flashed a second half header just wide. Italy grew anxious.
With 15 minutes left, it was still goalless. Austria grew in belief as Vicini looked to his bench. Rather than turn to Roberto Baggio, the new Golden Boy of Italian football, Vicini opted for Schillaci, who would be making just his second appearance for Italy. Reserve goalkeeper and Juventus teammate Stefano Tacconi told Schillaci he would go on “and score a header, like John Charles.” In the 78th minute Vialli whipped in the perfect cross and rising between two Austrian defenders, Totò headed truly to send both the Stadio Olimpico and country wild. Italy had their goal and their win. Schillaci had arrived...
Salvatore Schillaci was born on December 1st, 1964, in a poor area of Palermo. Commonly known by his nickname Totò, his career started in the amateur ranks of his native city. In 1982, Schillaci joined Sicilian rivals Messina. Always considered an outsider, he was a Palermitano in Messina, a Sicilian in the north and later, an Italian in Japan.
During his seven year stint at the Giallorossi, Schillaci helped the side move from Serie C2 to Serie C1 and finally Serie B. It was there that Schillaci established himself, with all the traits he would demonstrate to the worldwide audience in 1990: his explosive pace, powerful shot and penalty area instinct. In 1987/88 he scored 13 in 37 appearances; the following season he netted 23 goals in 35 matches. This gave Schillaci the capocannoniere crown as Serie B top scorer and alerted Italian giants Juventus.
Signed by Juve in the summer of 1989 for his debut Serie A campaign, Schillaci made the step-up seamlessly, netting in important matches such as the UEFA Cup Quarter Final first leg in Hamburg. The season ended with Juventus claiming both the UEFA Cup and Italian Cup. Totò finished Juve’s top scorer with 15 strikes in 30 matches and fourth overall, only behind Marco Van Basten (19 goals), Baggio (17) and Diego Maradona (16).
Schillaci timed his run perfectly as he was called to the national team by Vicini just months out from the World Cup. Totò made his Italian national team debut on March 30th, in a friendly versus Switzerland. Italy at this time was struggling for goals, having scored just twice in six friendlies leading in to the tournament.
Then came the moment against Austria and so began the ‘Notti Magiche’ (‘Magic Nights’ – the theme song of Italia ‘90) of Totò Schillaci. He was the beautiful, innocent side of football. He celebrated every goal with wide-eyed passion and as if it were his last. Of that Austrian goal, Schillaci recalls: “At that moment everything went mad. I started running and leapt on to Stefano Tacconi. You feel so emotional. I had just scored a goal and in that moment I started running. I didn’t know where to run and just ran to the bench – it was a fantastic emotion, it was indescribable.”
He became an instant national hero as others fell by the wayside. However, the goal was not enough for a starting role against USA, Vicini keeping faith with Vialli and Carnevale. Giannini scored early and Vialli missed a penalty. Schillaci once again made an appearance off the bench as Carnevale’s obscene gesture towards Vicini when substituted equalled the end of his Italy career.
Schillaci was paired with Baggio for the third group match versus Czechoslovakia, a 2-0 win. He grabbed the first with a close-range header, but Baggio took the plaudits with his amazing solo effort. Schillaci cemented his place in the team, continuing his astonishing tournament against Uruguay in the Second Round when he smashed home an unstoppable, swerving drive to send Italy on their way to a 2-0 win. While the defence was rock solid, Totò added the spontaneous edge up front. His was the only goal as Italy marched past the Republic of Ireland in the quarter-final.
Next up was Argentina in the semi-final, to be played in Naples, the home of Maradona. Schillaci once again found the target. Vialli, back in the starting XI, saw his shot saved but Totò was on hand to prod it home. Italy became nervous and Argentina found an equaliser. The match went to penalties and Vicini struggled to find volunteers for the shootout. Schillaci notes: “I had a muscular injury to my leg and I was tired, so I thought I’d leave it to someone in better condition than me and someone better at taking penalties.” He watched in horror as Roberto Donadoni and Aldo Serena were denied. Italy were out of their World Cup.
There was some consolation with third place secured in a 2-1 win against England. Schillaci earned and converted a late penalty to become World Cup leading scorer with six goals. His magic nights did not end with the ultimate prize, but he secured personal glory. There was even a racehorse in Australia named after Schillaci following the World Cup.
Schillaci never reached those heights again. Injuries persisted during his next two seasons at Juve, where he added just eleven further goals. Totò made another eight appearances for Italy, but only netted once, with Italy failing to qualify for Euro 92.
In 1992 Schillaci moved to Inter but again suffered from injury and poor form, scoring only eleven times in two seasons. However, there was some joy amidst the dark cloud as Inter claimed the 1993/94 UEFA Cup. Schillaci then left Italy for Japan’s J-League. He joined Jubilo Iwata and enjoyed his football again, hitting the net with regularity, notably in 1995 where he scored 31 goals in 34 games. Jubilo Iwata claimed the 1997 J-League Championship, Schillaci’s final club title.
He retired in 1999 after a long injury layoff which had kept him out since late 1997. Schillaci returned to Sicily where he opened a football academy in 2000. In 2008 he became a local councillor in Palermo.
While Schillaci’s career may have fizzled post-1990, he will forever be remembered for the big grinned, screaming celebrations as he took Italy on a rollercoaster ride. As Totò says, “Even when I go abroad, thanks to the World Cup people know who I am. For any player, playing for your country should be your first priority because it can change your life, the way it changed mine.” Nobody who saw them could possibly forget those magic nights.
Follow Luca on Twitter @l_cetta.