Veni, Vidi, Vici: The Legend of Salvatore Schillaci

Written by Salvatore Bono

Salvatore Schillaci

Veni, Vidi, Vici: The Legend of Salvatore Schillaci

On a hot June evening in 1990, he stretched on the sidelines along the racetrack of Rome’s iconic Stadio Olimpico. He didn’t look like a footballer. He looked like a mob hitman. Or maybe like someone who was getting ready to bust a move on the dance floor.

Leading up to this day, he was told he wasn’t allowed to play for his country. He was told he wasn’t good enough; that peasants do not represent the flag of Roman gods.

Salvatore Schillaci proved them all wrong.

One of soccer’s great footballing nations was hosting the World Cup and was favored to win it. In typical Italian fashion, however, nothing would be done without controversy.

Salvatore Schillaci : The Sicilian

Sicilian-born and bred player, Salvatore “Toto” Schillaci had been called up to the Azzurri for the first time to represent his country for the Cup. Schillaci’s call up showed how divided the nation was – North against South, rich vs. poor, the mainland vs. the island.

Schillaci grew up in the projects of Palermo and was raised in a poverty-stricken environment, the lanky kid from the streets only saw one way out – soccer.

Leading up to this day, he was told he wasn’t allowed to play for his country. He was told he wasn’t good enough; that peasants do not represent the flag of Roman gods.

He became a local hero in his city and was later signed by Serie B side Messina, located about 3 hours across Sicily from Palermo. He cut his teeth with the GialloRossi from 1982-1989 scoring an unprecedented 61 goals in over 200 appearances for the club, more than anyone in the history of the team. This caught the attention of Juventus, who in 1989, signed him for $3 million and brought him from the bottom to the top to try and topple Italy’s then-towering A.C. Milan. Much like Simone Zaza was for Juventus for the last 2 seasons, Schillaci was a super sub, coming on and scoring and helping the La Vecchia Signora by netting 15 goals in his first season and totaling 26 goals in 90 caps.

Systematic Racism Is Proven Wrong

By the time the 1990 World Cup came around, manager Azeglio Vicini made the controversial decision to call Schillaci. Many of the players, their managers, agents, especially those from the rich North and from more prestigious parts of Italy thought it was a slap in the face to have a Sicilian represent Italy since Sicilians, in their eyes, did not represent what Italy stood for. They looked at Sicilians as backwards, as hicks, slow and lazy. It is a struggle that surprisingly still goes on to this very day.

Salvatore Schillaci represented the schism in the country. The North and the South not only hated each other; the peninsula did not look at Sicily as part of their country. 

When the player would show up to Azzurri practice, he was pelted with eggs, slurs were hailed at him, he was spit in his face and was once attacked by an angry mob while in a car as he tried to leave the practice grounds.

The outsider wanted in and the only way he knew he could unite his country was to score and silence his critics.

Game Time, Salvatore Schillaci Shows up

During Italy’s opening match against Austria at the 1990 World Cup, the host nation had so much at steak. They had to win. In fact, not only did they have to win every game, they had to demolish their opponents.

If anyone has ever seen Italian Catenaccio aka “The Chain,” where the defensemen are the stars and the strikers get bursts after the ball is cleared from their box, you know demolishing is not in this style of play.

During the half hour mark of game one, Salvatore Schillaci was warming up in his tracksuit. The then-26-year-old with a receding hairline, bug eyes, and a stature that made him look 46 years old rather than his age, was sent on the pitch. The only thing missing from the scenario was a cigarette hanging from his mouth as he would chew on cheese after cutting it with a pocketknife.

As No. 19 proudly ran out in his oversized Diadorra Azzurri shirt, he hit the pitch to a chorus of boos and slurs. Three minutes after arriving onto the field in place of an injured Andrea Carnevale, he received a cross in Austria’s box and headed it in making it 1-0.

The Olimpico erupted as if Maximus himself just walked through and cut Nero Caesar’s throat.

Schillaci ran to the far corner flag with his arms in a “V” formation, mouth wide opened, eyes sticking out like a cartoon character that just saw Jessica Rabbit walk by. His team followed in celebration.

“The eyes, the eyes. Every time I meet people they always want me to do the ‘wild eyes’,” Schillaci told the BBC in 2014. “It was an instinctive gesture that has stuck in people’s minds, and I have done it many, many times.”

It echoed everything he ever wanted. The country was symbolically following him instead of being on his back.

Italy won their first game thanks to the controversial player. During the rest of the Cup, Salvatore Schillaci would partner up with Roberto Baggio, creating one of history’s greatest attacking trusts. Schillaci would go on and score 6 goals in the Cup and won the Golden Ball and Golden Boot by the end of the tournament.

Italy was tossed out of the competition by Maradona’s Argentina side in the semi-finals but it didn’t matter anymore. The country had “The Magical Nights of Schillaci” and a new hero.

The Aftermath

Unfortunately for Schillaci, he peaked at Italia ’90. He stayed with Juve until 1992 when he was later bought by Inter. He was a NerroAzzurri for 2 dismal seasons scoring a measly 11 goals in 30 caps.

In 1994, he unsurprisingly wasn’t called up for the national team. Instead, he signed on to play in Japan’s brand new J1 League with Júbilo Iwata. He became a hero at the Japanese team, scoring 58 goals in over 70 appearances.

Salvatore Schillaci today lives in Palermo. He still plays in celebrity games and currently runs a soccer academy not far from where he grew up, giving back to his community and crafting an outlet for children who want to learn the game. He tried his hands at local politics but failed in many campaigns.

Now, 51, his signature appearance has changed drastically, thanks to much cosmetic surgery, including a hairpiece that makes him look like a totally different person. I wonder if he goes to the same guy as Antonio Conte?

However, Salvatore Schillaci still is remembered for that month in Italy 26 years ago.

“There have been times when people have just burst into tears when they meet me,” Schillaci told the BBC in 2014. “It is great that when I meet people I see a big smile on their faces, they are so happy to meet me.

“I think success is hard won so it is nice when people still remember you. The tough thing is when people no longer appreciate you. So I don’t mind the attention at all.”

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