They say that good strikers come in small doses. Nothing could be more true about Salvatore Schillaci, or ‘Totò’ as he was more commonly known, who for a brief while became one of the most talked-about strikers in world football, but equally became one of the most forgotten strikers in the history of the game.
Schillaci’s rise to the top was not as sudden as most people think, as he slowly carved out his career in the nether regions of Calcio. Possessing a powerful right-foot, young Totò was already a prolific striker when playing in the junior leagues (he once scored 75 goals in a season, including 11 in one game). Still based in his hometown of Palermo, the local amateur club Amat Palermo was to be the starting point of Totò’s real footballing odyssey, before he caught the eye of Messina – his hometown’s most hated rivals – to whom he transferred in 1982. The Peloritani were at the time languishing in Serie C2, and with the help of Totò’s goals, slowly started to move up through the ranks until they were promoted to Serie B at the end of the 1985/86 season, courtesy of winning Serie C1. The Palermo native’s stock was rising with every passing season, however, it was the arrival of Coach Francesco Scoglio in 1984 that really propelled Totò on to greater things. Scoglio immediately recognised the 19-year-old had great potential and placed his faith in his ability to score goals – which de duly did. Had they had a bet365 code to hand at the time you can imagine the returns on a career like his.
Messina regularly finished seasons 1986-1989 in the top half of Serie B, however, his final campaign proved to be his most fruitful with the Giallorossi. Scoglio – his mentor – had since left Messina after the 1987/88 season to be replaced by future Lazio and Roma Coach Zdeněk Zeman. The Czech Tactician’s attacking style of play worked wonders for Totò as he finished top of the Serie B goalscoring charts, bagging half of his side’s 46 goals. It was now a case of when and not if, before a big Serie A club would call, and that moment arrived when the peninsula’s biggest club offered for the striker. Totò had finally hit the jackpot as he signed for Juventus in the summer of 1989. The poor boy from Palermo finally came good.
To recognise his achievements, one must understand his beginnings. Totò was born on December 1, 1964 to a very poor family, and was raised in the infamous neighbourhood known as the Centre for Poor Expansion – an area controlled by the mafia who dominated local politics. This area was bereft of parks, schools, and other amenities that characterise a modern city and which also provide a healthy environment for children to live and grow up in. This obviously did not deter the young Schillaci, who must have known from a young age what it was like to live in poverty, and what his purpose in life was to be.
Fuelled by what he encountered during his childhood years, his desire to make his way to the top remained undiminished, and for one memorable season, his poverty-stricken past was all but a distant memory. Under Dino Zoff, Schillaci continued his goalscoring form throughout the 1989/90 season with the aim of finishing Capocannoniere and landing a berth in Azeglio Vicini’s Italy squad for the forthcoming World Cup Finals in 1990 on home soil. Spearheading the Juve attack under the stewardship of club legend Zoff, Totò responded by scoring 15 goals as the Bianconeri won both the Coppa Italia and the UEFA Cup. Italy Coach Vicini noted Schillaci’s Serie A exploits, however, the media expected Vicini to leave the Juve forward out of the Azzurri squad as he already had four strikers of considerable note – Sampdoria duo Gianluca Vialli and Roberto Mancini, Napoli’s Andrea Carnevale, and Inter’s Aldo Serena. If Totò was to be selected, he would only be expected to warm the bench. Vicini resisted the clamour to leave Totò behind and gave him a shock call-up to la Nazionale’s World Cup squad despite having played only one game previously.
As many expected, the now 26-year-old striker started the World Cup on the bench, as Vicini chose to start Carnevale alongside Vialli for the Azzurri’s opening group game against Austria. With the game approaching 76 minutes, and with the score at 0-0 despite the Italian’s dominance, the Juve striker started to warm up. As he was doing so, reserve goalkeeper and Juve custodian Stefano Tacconi told him to “get ready, because you are soon going to go on and score…a header like John Charles.” The call came from Vicini for him to make his World Cup debut. The stage was set. Within a few minutes, Vialli somehow managed to swing the ball over from the by-line, and Totò was there to score with a bullet header in the same way the Gentle Giant – as Charles was famously known as – scored in his prime at Juve. The Azzurri tifosi inside the stadium and across Italy went wild, and Schillaci had become a household name. Despite his moment of glory saving Italy from an embarrassing goalless draw, he was left out for the next game against the USA, which the Italians won courtesy of a Giuseppe Giannini goal. With Vialli’s indifferent form playing on Vicini’s mind, Schillaci entered his thoughts more and more, and relenting to public pressure, the Palermo native was given the nod to start the last group game against Czechoslovakia where he scored again with a header. His thunder, however, was somewhat stolen considerably by that goal from Roberto Baggio.
Playing in tandem with each other, Schillaci and Baggio were now on a high which swept throughout the team and the nation itself, and they duly started the second round match against Uruguay. Following a pass from Serena, Totò thundered a first-time shot which swerved over Fernando Álvez, the opposition goalkeeper. Schillaci had to be first choice striker, now. This notion was given a boost by the fact that Vialli was seriously underperforming and was depressed, while Carnevale was cast aside as punishment following his tantrum when substituted in the group game against the Americans. Totò had earned his place in the starting XI, and continued to make the main striker role his own, as he started the quarter-final game against the Republic of Ireland. This game was also settled by Totò as he latched on to a Paddy Bonner parry following Roberto Donadoni’s long-range shot. There was nothing stopping the Juve striker now.
Vialli was surprisingly recalled to the starting XI at Baggio’s expense for the semi-final against Diego Maradona’s Argentina, and it was he who helped Totò notch up his fifth goal of the tournament when he pounced on a loose ball in the Argentina penalty-area in the 17th minute. After a bitterly-contested game which ended 1-1 after extra time, the game went to penalties. Schillaci did not take a penalty, as the Azzurri crashed out in heartbreaking fashion. The nation’s dreams of World Cup glory died that night in Naples, but Totò’s boyhood dreams had come true. He rounded off his tournament by scoring the winning goal in the third place play-off against England in Bari, and by doing so, ended up as the tournament’s top scorer with six goals, thus winning the coveted Golden Shoe award. FIFA that summer also awarded him the Golden Ball as the tournament’s best player, meaning Totò had matched the individual achievements of previous Juve and Azzurri striker Paolo Rossi. Things, however, would never be the same again for the hero from Palermo.
The 1990/91 and 1991/92 seasons were modest affairs after his high during the summer of 1990. Totò confounded all those high expectations from the Agnelli family and the Bianconeri tifosi by scoring only 11 goals in a weak Juve side which was still in the process of being rebuilt. Injuries soon followed, and he was quickly sold on to Inter in 1992, who thought he could reignite his career and their ambition of winning the Serie A title once more. By this time, he was largely ignored by new Italy Coach Arrigo Sacchi, and eventually scored only one more goal (against Norway in 1991) in a handful of matches for the Azzurri, ending up with an international career statistic of seven goals in 16 caps.
His decline was astonishing, considering he was approaching the peak age for modern footballers. He suffered more injuries and a lack of confidence, and was continually booed by his own fans inside the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza and insulted outside the ground itself, with signs saying “Schillaci=terrone,” which was an offensive term used to describe southerners. Totò was the fall-guy in what was a depressing time for Inter and its fans, and the Sicilian was become increasingly humiliated and soon became persona non grata.
The J-League had been formed in Japan in 1992, recruiting fading world stars wishing to make a lucrative final hurrah. After Inter decided to dispense with him, Totò took up the challenge of football in an emerging league and signed for Jubilo Iwata in 1994. While he was never the same player during those three seasons between 1994-1997, his knack of scoring goals never deserted him, albeit in a much inferior league, as he wound up his playing career at the Japanese club with a club record of 60 goals in three seasons.
Since his retirement, he has opened up a football academy in the island of Sicily, while he also had a short dalliance with politics, where he was elected as a local councilor in his home town of Palermo. In the way that faded stars make a mockery of the celebrity status, he took part in the trash reality show L’isola dei Famosi in 2005. A fall from grace, indeed.
Few players light up a tournament in the way Schillaci did at Italia 90. His expressions and bulbous eyes stood out when pleading for every free-kick or penalty, his exuberant celebrations after scoring a goal symbolised a proud Sicilian and Italian native who knew what it felt to reach nirvana for a brief moment, forgetting his troubles of the past. If there was a rags-to-riches tale to be told, we would tell you the story of one Salvatore Schillaci.
Past Lessons in Calcio
Alessandro Del Piero