Salvatore Schillaci began Italy 1990 as a one-cap substitute
He finished it with the best player and top scorer awards
"People have just burst into tears when they meet me"
"In a way, my career lasted just three weeks."
The admission came from a player whose name appears alongside Diego Maradona, Zinedine Zidane, Romario and Lionel Messi in one category, and Eusebio, Gerd Muller, Gary Lineker and Ronaldo in another. Of course, Salvatore Schillaci may be exaggerating the brevity of his career at the highest level, but it is undeniable that before those three unforgettable weeks in 1990, few people outside Italy knew his name. Incredibly, not a great deal would be heard of him after that tournament either.
But Toto, as he was widely known, choose his moment of glory well, and that moment was the 1990 FIFA World Cup Italy™, where he would win the adidas Golden Ball and adidas Golden Boot awards for the tournament’s best player and top scorer respectively, as well as a bronze medal.
His very participation in the game’s flagship event is a story in itself, as barely a year before the world gathered in Italy, the striker was still playing in Serie B. Until then, Schillaci had only ever known the improvised pitches of his Palermo neighbourhood, the amateur club AMAT Palermo, and later FC Messina, who then alternated between the country’s second and third divisions.
Suffice to say that, despite his title as Serie B’s top scorer in 1988/89, Schillaci was not exactly on the radar of La Nazionale. On the other hand, his goalscoring did earn him a move to Juventus in the summer of 1989.
In his first season in the star-studded Serie A, the Sicilian did not look out of place. In fact, his 15 league goals caught the eye of Italy coach Azeglio Vicini in the build-up to Italy 1990. And so, having played just one friendly for his country – a preparation game against Switzerland in March – he found himself in the Azzurri squad for their World Cup.
"My greatest satisfaction was just being selected for the Italian World Cup squad," Schillaci told FourFourTwo magazine. "I had no responsibilities as I was just one of the 22 players selected. That moment was fantastic, and even if I didn’t play, I would have been just as happy to be sitting on the bench."
Toto found himself on the substitutes’ bench for Italy's opening game against Austria, hardly surprising when their attacking options included Gianluca Vialli, Roberto Mancini, Aldo Serena, Roberto Baggio, Nicola Berti and Andrea Carnevale. In the end, none of these would dazzle in that first game, enabling the emergence of a shooting star who would go on to light up the competition.
With 75 minutes on the clock and the hosts still frustrated, Vicini decided it was time to play his wild card. Schillaci was as surprised as anyone and even more so when his Juve team-mate, goalkeeper Stefano Tacconi, told him, "Get ready. You're going to go on and score." And so it proved, with Schillaci netting the winning goal just three minutes later. What started as a nice story was beginning to seem like a fairy tale.
The striker again came off the bench in the second match, but was not on the score-sheet in a 1-0 win over USA. He was finally handed a starting berth against Czechoslovakia in the final group game, this time taking just nine minutes to find the target. Roberto Baggio would add a second late on to seal a 2-0 win. The fact that Schillaci’s first two goals came from headers provides further evidence of the state of grace he was experiencing – the striker having failed to impress even once with his heading ability the previous season.
By then enamoured, just like the rest of Italy, Vicini made Schillaci his first choice for the rest of the tournament. Toto would repay that faith in him by scoring in each of his subsequent games: in the Round of 16 against Uruguay, the quarter-final against Republic of Ireland and in the semi against Argentina.
And while the Squadra Azzurra would be denied by Diego Maradona's Albiceleste in the last four, the Schillaci fairy tale was not quite complete. That would require to help of one of his illustrious team-mates. Awarded a spot kick in the match for third place against England, Baggio, the usual penalty taker, gave the honour to Schillaci, who scored his sixth of the tournament to pip Czechoslovakia’s Tomas Skuhravy to the Golden Boot.
His remarkable exploits not only made him the tournament's top scorer and best player, but also afforded him mythical status in record time.
"I think someone up there had decided that Toto Schillaci would become the hero of all Italy," he told FIFA.com years later. "No-one could have predicted what happened to me.
"When you’re a football player there are times when everything just goes for you. All you have to do is breathe and the ball goes in. I was just in a state of grace."
Of course, a state of grace cannot last forever, and, in the case of the Sicilian, it ended almost as quickly as it had begun. After that, Schillaci only found the net once more for Italy and his international career ended barely a year later. In his 16 international appearances, he scored seven goals, including six at the World Cup. At club level too, his goalscoring instinct deserted him, both at Juve and later with Inter Milan, and he would go on to end his career in Japan.
But as brief as this enchanted interlude was, Schillaci knows it was worth experiencing.
"There have been times when people have just burst into tears when they meet me," he said. "It’s great when I see a big smile on people’s faces and they’re so happy. For the rest of my life, I’ll always have those marvellous memories of Italy 1990."