In the southern part of Italy, Palermo is located in the northwest of the island of Sicily, right by the Gulf of Palermo in the Tyrrhenian Sea. It is the capital of both the autonomous region of Sicily and the Metropolitan City of Palermo. Here, people of all classes live and in a poor family, a boy named Salvatore Toto Schillaci was born on December 1, 1964.
The life of Schillaci was poverty-stricken and he could not 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 scoring goals.
He started to play for an amateur team of his native city, Amat Palermo. He then signed for the Sicilian club Messina in 1982, where he played until 1989 and showed his goal-scoring abilities, most notably winning the Serie B top-scorer Award during the 1988–89 Serie B season, with 23 goals.
Juventus was impressed by Schillaci’s goal-scoring abilities and signed him.
He made his debut in Serie A on 27 August 1989.
Juventus, the “Old Lady” of Italian football, was at the time suffering from the breakup of the wonderful team which dominated Italian football in the 1980s, under manager Giovanni Trapattoni; Schillaci’s arrival coincided with a return to form under the direction of former legendary Italy and Juventus and goalkeeper Dino Zoff.
He featured prominently for the club that season, scoring 15 league goals and 21 in all competitions in a very positive year, which ended with Juventus winning both the 1989–90 Coppa Italia and the UEFA Cup titles.
Due to his clever, inventive, and aggressive attacking style, he was then selected by the head coach of Italy, Azeglio Vicini, to play in the 1990 FIFA World Cup, to be hosted by Italy itself, despite being a novice in the arena of national team competitions.
That Italian of 1990 was considered to be a dream unit – the attack was built centering Gianluca Vialli, who would be aided by Napoli’s Andrea Carnevale whereas behind them were players who were the superstars of world football back then – Franco Baresi, Paolo Maldini, Diagostini, Ricardo Ferri, Giuseppe Giannini, Giuseppe Berghomi, Roberto Donadoni, Roberto Baggio, De Napoli, Carlo Ancelotti, Nicola Berti and Walter Zenga.
Woah! What a team!
Italy were the pre-tournament hot favourites alongside Holland and Brazil and in that team whether Schillaci would feature or not remained a moot question.
On June 9, 1990, at the Olympic Stadium, Rome, Italy played their first match of the tournament against a sturdy Austrian unit. Italy and Austria met before in the World Cups and that infamous semifinal clash against the Wunderteam in 1938 was more often remembered by the television experts back then.
After the Cameroon-shocker in the opening match at San Siro, Milan, Italy were careful against Austria and their prolific striker Toni Polster. Again, their goalkeeper Klaus Lindenberger was stubborn as hell – he was well known for being the wall which is tough to breach when he is at his very best.
On that night in Rome, Lindenberger became very stubborn while the Italian frontline players and midfielders dished a festival of missed opportunities. Vialli and Carnevale kept on firing blanks. Donadoni’s agility and creativity went wasted. Giannini and Ancelotti were stopped by Lindenberger.
Along with the spectators, Vicini’s patience took a heavy toll, and tensions were evident on his face.
In the 75th minute Vicini substituted Carnevale and brought on Schillaci – an unknown name even to many of the Italians let alone the people of world football. Again, Vicini’s faith in an unknown guy rather than Baggio surprised many, but it took just three minutes to change the mood at Rome.
In the 78th minute, Donadoni provided a scissor-sharpened pass to the advancing Vialli on the left. The pass was accurate enough to cut the Austrian defenders into halves and reach the feet of Vialli, who wasted no time in crossing the ball in the center where the man with the Sicilian Eyes – Toto Schillaci rose in between the floundering defenders and powered a bullet header past Lindenberger.
Italy 1 Austria 0.
Rome breathed a sigh of relief.
Schillaci announced his arrival with a goal and his iconic celebrations, which would gain immortality with the progress of the tournament.
The vociferous crowd at Rome went wild – It was a sea of Azurri in the stands waving the Italian flag.
Schillaci admitted how scared he was when he ran down the pitch as a substitute. While he was called to substitute Carnevale, his Juve teammate Stefano Tacconi encouraged him saying’ “Go and score a header”. Those words became prophetic.
Since then, Schillaci would become the savior of Italy.
After the nervy and misfiring matches against Austria and the United States of America, critics demanded changes in the squad and the cry for a Baggio and Schillaci combination at the top gained enough momentum.
In the third match against Czechoslovakia, Vicini brought on Baggio, who would score the best goal of the tournament – an individual reminiscent of Diego Maradona’s heroics in Mexico 1986. But before that Schillaci would give Italy the opening.
That feeling was symbolized 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.”
Italy hailed him as the new Paolo Rossi. But Schillaci’s reply to this tribute was a humble one, “Rossi was a champion. I am an ordinary, modest guy. I just hope I can continue to do what I have been doing.”
In the knockout stages, Schillaci’s goal-scoring did not stop at all.
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.
Schillaci broke the deadlock against Uruguay with a thunderous strike and his goal against another surprise package of the tournament Republic of Ireland, ensured Italy’s place in the semifinal. In the semifinals, Schillaci scored again against the defending champions Argentina.
But Maradona’s mind-game and Sergio Goycochea dashed Italy’s dream.
Until this day, the debate on why Vicini did not allow Schillaci to take the decisive penalty instead of a nervous Aldo Serena was sent. Again, why was Italy’s hard-man Caro Ancelotti was not chosen to play!
A goal from the penalty spot would ensure Schillaci’s sixth goal in the third-place play-off against England, which was another down-the-wire affair.
Italy would finish the tournament as the third-best side, whereas they were supposed to win the title.
Schillaci would become a part of history despite his career not taking off after enjoying such a magnificent tournament.
Italia 90 had given birth to Toto Schillaci who is still loved and respected by all.