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March 26, 2010

Toto Schillaci: One-hit wonder

Eusebio, Gerd Muller, Grzegorz Lato, Mario Kempes, Paolo Rossi, Gary Lineker, Toto Schillaci. The Italian's unlikely presence in a sequence of World Cup Golden Boot winners is a clear anomaly, but a delicious one. Football's very own one-hit wonder, an unheralded Schillaci caught the football world unawares when topping the goalscoring charts at Italia '90, but his return to mediocrity was equally rapid, his legacy in the game remaining that miracle month in which the "notti magiche di Toto Schillaci" (magical nights of Toto Schillaci) enraptured a host nation and enthralled fans around the globe.

Toto Schillaci's celebrations were iconic moments
GettyImagesToto Schillaci's celebrations were iconic moments

From Serie B to the World Cup semi-finals in 12 months: Schillaci's story is unique, and his success fleeting. But during that golden period in 1990 - in which he scored six of his seven career international goals, marking each one with scenes of unbridled celebration - the Sicilian striker did more than enough to ensure that his name will be forever associated with football's greatest competition. His is the very definition of an underdog story, and absolutely no one saw it coming.

Remarkably, Schillaci's introduction to top-flight football came just a year before his heroics at the World Cup. Born in Sicily, the striker started his professional career in the lower leagues with Messina and over a seven-year spell gradually carved out a reputation as a player of some abilitly, eventually earning a move to Juventus when, under the guidance of future Lazio and Roma coach Zdenek Zeman, he scored 23 Serie B goals for Messina in the 1988-89 campaign.

His debut season for the Bianconceri was also a success, Schillaci scoring 15 goals as the Turin club, managed by Italian great Dino Zoff, won both the Coppa Italia and the UEFA Cup. With Italy due to host the World Cup in the summer of 1990, Schillaci had peaked at the perfect time by proving his credentials at the elite level following so many seasons in the lower leagues.

He was far from guaranteed a place in Azeglio Vicini's 22-man squad though. At that time, Italy boasted the talented Sampdoria pair of Gianluca Vialli and Roberto Mancini, Napoli's Andrea Carnevale, Aldo Serena of Inter Milan and, of course, the tremendously gifted Fiorentina forward Roberto Baggio. Schillaci was very much an outsider, and had only made one appearance for his country prior to the tournament.

But Vicini showed faith in the Sicilian, and how that was to be vindicated when the World Cup began.

For Italy's opening group game against Austria, Schillaci was, as expected, sat on the bench as Carnevale and Vialli started the game at Rome's Stadio Olimpico. With the score locked at 0-0 after 74 minutes though, Carnevale made way for Schillaci and the substitute grasped the opportunity presented to him. Within four minutes he had met a Vialli cross from the right with a towering header to score the only goal of the game, his wild celebrations mirroring those in homes and bars across the country.

Toto Schillaci scores against Czechoslovakia
GettyImagesToto Schillaci scores against Czechoslovakia

Summoned from the bench to replace Carnevale again in a 1-0 win over United States on June 14, Schillaci forced his way into the starting XI when Vicini ditched his first-choice partnership and fielded Baggio alongside Schillaci for the final group game against Czechoslovakia. The Juventus striker opened the scoring with a header before Baggio contributed a quite brilliant solo effort to secure a 2-0 win for the Azzurri.

Schillaci's unexpectedly growing reputation was cemented in the last-16 tie against Uruguay on June 25. In the intensity of a physical and testing encounter in Rome, Schillaci broke the deadlock on 65 minutes with a fearsome effort from outside the box before Aldo Serena ensured Italy's progression five minutes from time.

With three goals in four games, Schillaci was now being hailed as a modern-day Paolo Rossi or Giuseppe Meazza - two strikers who had previously tasted World Cup glory with the Azzurri. In the build-up to a quarter-final meeting with Republic of Ireland, a headline in Corriere della Sera boldly hailed "The Italy of Schillaci" - quite an accolade for a player who only recently had made an impact at the top level.

In the tussle against Jack Charlton's Ireland, he would not disappoint, scoring the only goal of the game when calmly slotting home after opposition goalkeeper Pat Bonner spilled a shot into his path. The man who had only one cap to his name prior to the tournament now had four goals in five games at the World Cup finals. The name Schillaci was resonating around the world. The striker would later say of his goal against the Irish: "It was the hardest goal I had to score. Ireland under Jack Charlton was the most robust team that we faced."

But while Ireland proved an inconvenience, Argentina, with a certain Diego Maradona in their ranks, proved insurmountable in the semi-finals. A dramatic night in Naples began in promising fashion for Italy as the Schillaci fairytale continued. Winning the ball thanks to his dogged determination after 17 minutes, Schillaci then finished off the subsequent move when a shot from Vialli was parried into his path, inspiring two enterpirisng Italian fans to produce a banner reading "Grazie Toto". But Argentina responded and after Claudio Caniggia equalised in the second half, Italy were defeated on penalties, with Roberto Donadoni and Aldo Serena failing to convert. Schillaci did not take a spot-kick.

Italy's World Cup dream had been brought to a shuddering and painful halt, but Schillaci was not done yet and in the third place play-off he scored an 86th-minute penalty to defeat England 2-1 in Bari and secure the Golden Boot ahead of Czechoslovakia's Tomas Skuhravy. Schillaci was to also receive the Golden Ball award - handed to the best player of the tournament - in recognition of a string of performances that captured the imagination of the watching world and made him a hero in Italy.

Toto Schillaci
GettyImagesToto Schillaci and Italy were defeated by Argentina in the semi-finals

But that was to be the pinnacle of his football career. Few would have predicted as much then, but Schillaci would score only one more goal for his country. His reputation slumped almost as dramatically as it had soared, so unexpectedly and thrillingly at the World Cup.

After failing to replicate his heroics upon returning to Juventus, Schillaci then spent two unsuccessful seasons with Inter Milan before becoming, at the age of 29, the first Italian player to move to Japan when joining Jubilo Iwata. Just four years after taking the world by storm, Schillaci was a spent force, a mere shadow of the striker who suddenly found himself elevated to the pantheon of the game's greats, albeit temporarily. But the image of those bulging eyes - the pure look of incredulity as he celebrated another goal at the greatest competition on earth - is a lasting one.

Schillaci always had the demeanour of a man who knew he was dreaming, and was waiting to wake up; the lower-league striker who, in the space of 12 months, became the leading scorer at the biggest competition in the world.

That surprise still resonates."The World Cup experience was amazing and unique," Schillaci said recently. "Every player would dream to take part in a World Cup like that one. It was amazing for me, which allows me to be known all over the world, even 20 years on. It feels like yesterday, they were really magic nights."