In Italy, we call “meteora” (meteor) a football player who lives a short period of glory before fading away, back into anonymity. The World Cup is full of such stories, of players who in some way managed to find their edge right during those 30 days, once in four years, when the whole world revolves around a foot ball. They shone on the most important stage, and then quickly turned back into regular journeymen, or even worse disappeared from the calcio che conta (“football that matters”). Like a broken spell. Like a dream from which they suddenly woke up.
Antonio Guarini takes us through a journey among the Top 10 “one-hit-wonders” in the recent history of the World Cup. Some of them helped Italy climb to the top of the world, some others recall painful memories for the Azzurri. But all share the same fascinating meteora status, all found the magic formula to sparkle and shine just when it mattered most.
They may not have been Ballon d’Or winning champions, but we are sure that these names will ring a bell or two to all football lovers.
1) Salvatore Schillaci, the Crownless King of Italia ’90
During the Notti Magiche (“Magic Nights”) of World Cup 1990 in Italy, he seemed capable of doing anything. Literally anything. But he was not even meant to be there – at least until, as the World Cup at home approached, Italian coach Azeglio Vicini from Cesenatico realized that there were no players from Juventus in his squad list.
The Bianconeri were indeed not going through their best days. Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan, Diego Maradona’s Napoli, Inter coached by Giovanni Trapattoni, and Sampdoria with their golden twins Gianluca Vialli and Roberto Mancini, were the major contributors to the Azzurri’s lineup.
But there was this Sicilian striker playing for Juventus, who had scored 15 goals in 30 matches in the season that just ended. Vicini knew that in such a short and fast-paced event as the World Cup, a player in a good shape could make a difference. His regular strikers were Gianluca Vialli, Andrea Carnevale, and Aldo Serena. Roberto Baggio and Roberto Mancini were the creative ones. But at the very last minute, Vicini still decided to add that Juventus’ forward, whose name was Salvatore Schillaci.
The Azzurri debuted in their home-hosted World Cup playing against a tough Austria. With 15 minutes to go, and the score still set to 0-0, Vicini sent him in. All Austrian defenders were more than 190 cms tall, but Schillaci managed to score with a header, converting a perfect cross by Vialli. From that moment on, World Cup Italia ’90 became Salvatore Schillaci’s World Cup.
Totò scored again with Czechoslovakia during the Group Stage, then against Uruguay in the Round of 16, and then again with Ireland in the Quarter Finals. Azzurri’s Number 19 seemed unstoppable. Argentina were his next victim, but Maradona and his teammates eventually managed to equalise, and advance on penalties.
Schillaci’s last goal came against England in a Third Place Playoff, and earned him the top scorer title. He didn’t win the World Cup, but the Notti Magiche changed his life. Totò became a role model for thousands of children from the South of Italy who dreamed of making it to the Nazionale.
He played a few more seasons with Juventus, then with Inter, and eventually moved to Japan – where he closed his career. But those eyes wide open of his, as he run to celebrate a goal, where not seen around for much longer. He ended up collecting only 16 caps with Italy, and scoring 7 goals – 6 of which came during that World Cup.
When Italian football fans rethink about those days, they cannot but remember Italia ’90 and Schillaci’s exploit as a fairy tale that only missed a happy ending. But maybe winning the World Cup would have been too much for him – whom was not even meant to play it. Or maybe not. Who knows?
Translated by Matteo Carnevale
Check out the other World Cup Meteors in our countdown:
10) Ahn Jung-Hwan, Italy’s Korean Killer
9) Stephan Guivarc’h, the Goalless World Champion
8) Asamoah Gyan’s Penalty Nightmare
7) Yordan Letchkov, the Bulgarian Who Made Germany Cry
6) Cuauhtémoc Blanco, the Mexican Juggler of France 1998
5) Oleg Salenko, a Day of Football Insanity
4) Mario Gotze, Hero for One Night Only
3) Sergio Goycochea, the Killer of Notti Magiche
2) Fabio Grosso, the Last Minute Man