Then & now Toto Schillaci, footballer

Sat, Aug 4, 2012, 01:00

JUNE 30th, 1990, at the Stade Olympico in Rome. Jack’s Army had reached the quarter-finals of the World Cup in Italy, swept along on a wave of resurgent national pride (and a second round win against Romania, on penalties). Now, they were about to face the host country’s team, and it was going to be a tough battle.

Italy were favourites to win the World Cup that year, and they had such talented players as Franco Baresi and Roberto Baggio in the line-up.

But it was a diminutive Sicilian named Salvatore “Toto” Schillaci who dashed Ireland’s World Cup dream in the 38th minute, slotting home a goal from the six-yard line after Packie Bonner stumbled while parrying a shot from Roberto Donadoni.

Ireland went home disappointed, but the national morale boost from Italia ’90 has often been credited with kick-starting the Celtic Tiger.

Meanwhile, Schillaci, who had made his debut Italy in the 1990 World Cup, was riding on a wave of acclaim from Italian fans. Born in Palermo, Schillaci had played for Sicilian club Messina before signing to Juventus in 1989 and making his Serie A debut.

His performance at Italia ’90 was so spectacular, the contest came to be known as the Notti Magiche de Toto Schillaci.

Alas, Schillaci failed to keep up his form in subsequent seasons, and pundits began labelling him a one-hit wonder. The once-prolific goal-scorer put a paltry 11 balls in the net for Juventus before he was sold off to Inter Milan in 1992, where he fell even further from grace. His coach ignored him, the fans booed him, and northern Italians derided him as a “terrone” a hick from the south.

His last few years as a professional were spent playing in the Japanese league, and he retired in 1999, returning home to his native Palermo, where he set up his own football academy. He also had a short-lived dalliance in politics, getting elected as a local councillor in Palermo. In 2002, Schillaci was all over our TV screens again, in an ad for Smithwicks. And during Euro 2012, he made a return visit to Ireland to appear on the Craig Doyle show, his balding pate covered by a fine new wig.

“The World Cup experience was amazing and unique,” Schillaci said in 2010.

“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.”

Kevin Courtney

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