“Sometimes I ask myself, ‘How did it happen? Did it really happen to me?’ I really do ask myself, because for me, it was something totally unexpected. It was difficult to come to terms with. I didn’t speak Italian well, and I didn’t know how to explain it all.”

If there was ever a look that spoke all of these words and more – a look melding joy and amazement and sheer how-the-fuck? – it was the wild-eyed look of Salvatore Schillaci during Italia ’90.

Forget the green, white and red stickman Ciao; after all the promotional efforts, the real Italian symbol of their home World Cup turned out to be a Sicilian with a crazed countenance called Totò.

Schillaci, then 25, had played only once for Italy before the start of the World Cup. He would hit only one more international goal afterwards. Yet he ended the 1990 tournament with both the Golden Boot for his six goals and the Golden Ball as its best player. “Who was the bigger surprise, Schillaci or Cameroon?” asked Il Giorno, the Milan daily, in its World Cup post mortem. Of the 75 goal scorers at Italia 90, only Cameroon’s Roger Milla rivalled him for the impression made on the global audience. Schillaci’s eyes had a story to tell.

“Everybody asks me to do that wild look,” he adds with a grin. “In reality, that look said many things. It was an expression with a lot of meaning from a boy who had so much hunger to do well and be successful, and it went into homes across the whole world.”

Today, as we sit in the office of his football school in Palermo, those same green eyes are friendly and bright – and probably the most recognisable feature on the face of a man much changed since his 1990 goal rush.

After a handful of hair transplants, and rumoured plastic surgery too, the fifty-something before me looks little older than his 25-year-old self, the mongrel among the Azzurri’s lustrous-headed thoroughbreds.

“I’ve changed my look,” he says, reiterating what the wave of dark hair and Mexican-bandit moustache have spelled out already. “I like to look good for my work today.” This is the Schillaci who has appeared on reality TV – he finished third in L’isola dei famosi, a celebrities-on-an-island show, in 2004 – and played a mafia boss in a TV series.

“After I stopped playing, I wanted to pay more attention to myself physically,” he elaborates. “I like to do things for myself and not for others. I want to feel well in myself. I don’t love visibility and publicity – I’m quite reserved – but if you want to get ahead, you have to do this and not hide away.

“The physical aspect is another string to your bow, and it’s nice when people tell you you look younger.”

In a sense, Schillaci has come full circle, back to the place of his youth. The Scuola Calcio Totò Schillaci is found at the Centro Sportivo Louis Ribolla, where he played football for six years from the age of eleven with a local club, AMAT. After leaving Japan, his final staging post as a professional footballer, he returned to his home city and, in 2000, established this school. It now has a full-sized all-weather pitch and two smaller football courts, catering for boys aged five to seventeen.

Outside the office stands a stout palm tree. In the club house next door, his father – short, bald and arguably looking more like Totò Schillaci (the one the world remembers) than Totò Schillaci himself – is behind the bar.

A line of shirts hang on the wall behind Schillaci Sr, most of them bearing the names of forwards: Cavani, Miccoli, Klose, Giovinco, Milito. (The two shirts carrying the lesser known name Di Mariano belong to a graduate of Schillaci’s school now at the Serie B side Novara, Francesco Di Mariano.)

The walls around the bar are alive with memories of Schillaci’s career: photographs with Pope John Paul II, with Roberto Baggio, with Juventus’s Uefa Cup-winning side, in the blue and black of Inter, and in the light blue of Júbilo Iwata, the club he represented for four years in Japan’s J.League.

“If you tell my story now, it seems like a fairy tale,” he reflects. The football world is a place of hyperbole, but not in this instance. When Italy won the World Cup in 1982, he was just leaving AMAT for his first professional team, Messina.

“I was 11 when I started playing in this sports centre here,” he explains. “When I got to 17, in June, around the start of the 1982 World Cup, I was signed by Messina who were in Serie B. I celebrated Italy winning the World Cup with my friends in the city centre – I was on the roof of a bus with the Italian flag, risking my life.

“I’d have never thought of being able to achieve all this. Ultimately, I just liked playing football. I was quick, and I could dribble – I liked taking on defenders and scoring goals. Messina bought me for 18 million lire, which was about €9000.’

If emulating Paolo Rossi, Italy’s 1982 Golden Shoe winner, had seemed a pipe dream then, even in the lead-up to Italia 90 he was taking nothing for granted.

“The TV and the newspapers were starting to say my name, but I wasn’t sure,” he recalls. “That year Juventus had signed me, and I had a great season, winning the Uefa Cup and Coppa Italia, and scoring 21 goals – 15 in Serie A. I was the last to be called up, though, and the only player to have been playing in Serie B the year before.

“When the season ended, one of the directors at Juventus came in and read the names who’d been called up. He said, “[Stefano] Tacconi, [Giancarlo] Marocchi, [Luigi] De Agostini,” and then he left the changing room. Then he popped back in and said, “Oh, I forgot, there’s also Schillaci!” I told him, “Vaffanculo! [fuck off].”

“I shouldn’t have even been on the bench but in the stand. During the training sessions, though, I gave the manager a problem, and he put me on the bench. For me, that was massive in itself. During the first match against Austria, the game was goalless. I was on the bench and in the 76th minute, [the Italy coach Azeglio] Vicini called me and I went on and I scored from a [Gianluca] Vialli cross. It was a lovely ball in; I was in between two big central defenders, and he really fired it across and I headed it in. The joy was immense.” It was his first touch of a football at Italia 90.

**********

Schillaci had not even won his first senior cap for Italy until March 1990. Indeed, when Italy met England in a friendly match in November 1989, Schillaci was being tried out, as an over-age player, in their Under-21 team.

Just as remarkable, with hindsight, is the fact Paul Gascoigne was with England’s second string for that match at the Goldstone Ground in Brighton, and it was Gascoigne who ended Schillaci’s involvement in his first-ever international after 44 minutes. “He gave me a kick on the instep, and I needed three stitches,” Schillaci remembers.

“I liked Gascoigne a lot because he saw football as a spectacle. There were extraordinary players then. They played for the spirit of the game, for the hunger, for the shirt. It’s no longer like that today. They’re not as good technically as before. Now, football’s based more on running, on speed and on physical power.

“Today, pure strikers no longer exist. They all share in the tasks. They all go back, they all defend, they all join in the attacking, in the pressing, and a lot of players get tired. You no longer have the out-and-out striker. I was like that – sometimes I’d go missing, but other times, I’d win the match.”

Schillaci had the capabilities required to flourish at international level. The Juventus president Gianni Agnelli told him on his arrival in Turin from Messina in the summer of 1989, “You’ve got goals in your blood. Do what your instinct tells you and you’ll achieve great things.”

His instinct during Italia 90 was a simple one: just go for goal. He had the joint most goal attempts – 21 in all, level with Jürgen Klinsmann – and the most shots on target (12).

Italy’s captain at Italia 90, Giuseppe Bergomi, remembers, “With Totò, I played with him at Inter, and he was all about instinct, with not much reasoning. You couldn’t cage him in schemes and formations, you had to let him play. You know those boys who always want the ball, who are unpredictable, who shoot from 30m and get you a goal – that was Schillaci. He was carefree, cheerful, and it was good to be in his company.”

Aldo Serena, his fellow forward in Italy’s 1990 squad, proffers a similar thought: “Schillaci was an anarchic player whom you couldn’t integrate into a collective game, but he was incredibly fast, he always shot, and this was his golden moment. He had the support of the public too because he played for Juventus and they have fans all over Italy.”

Now was his time to shine. He began the second game, against the United States, among the substitutes, but as he took the field in the 52nd minute, Napoli striker Andrea Carnevale, the man making way, mouthed “vaffanculo” to the Italy bench.

Although Schillaci did not score against the US, Carnevale’s outburst and Vialli’s penalty miss in that game meant neither forward featured in the third group fixture against Czechoslovakia. Instead, for the first time in a competitive international, Schillaci was in the starting XI, supported in attack by Roberto Baggio, an unused substitute in the first two matches. In 1989-90, they had finished as the top two scorers in Serie A. Nine minutes after kick-off, Schillaci had another goal. Baggio, with a dazzling run and finish, completed the 2-0 victory that ensured first place in Group A.

“We were the ‘goal twins’,” says Schillaci of Baggio, who was also making his first World Cup start.

“We had a great understanding, a great feeling between us. We were always looking for these little combinations, in training and in the matches. He played less than me but he should have played a lot more in that World Cup because he always made the difference. He was a great athlete, a great pro and for me one of the best Italian footballers ever.”

As for Schillaci’s goal that evening, it owed everything to his powers of anticipation. When Giuseppe Giannini volleyed a Roberto Donadoni corner into the ground, the ball span up to the right edge of the six-yard box, and Schillaci, having read its flight expertly, applied the headed finish. Off he sped down the touchline to leap into the arms of Tacconi, the reserve goalkeeper, who had told him in the dressing room that he would score.

Afterwards, Schillaci urged reporters, “Don’t call me the new Paolo Rossi,” but the comparison was inevitable and he underscored his status as Italy’s man of the hour in the round of 16 against Uruguay on 25 June, a match in which he and Serena contributed the goals.

As before every Italy match that summer, Schillaci prepared to face the South Americans by watching the Rocky films and listening to the soundtrack. By now, as he observes, his own story had the beating of the Italian Stallion’s. “The music helped me get psyched up and focused, and ready to go out there and battle. Then, when I went out on the pitch, I wouldn’t look anybody in the eye. I compared myself a bit to Rocky – like him, I had to make the most of that moment of going from a nobody to a somebody. That was a film, though, and this was reality.”

Schillaci’s breakthrough strike against the stubborn Uruguayans came after 65 minutes and was stunning for its speed and simplicity. Baggio met the goalkeeper Walter Zenga’s falling kick with a sumptuous flick to Serena, and he touched the ball on through an opponent’s legs towards Schillaci – who, reacting before the two defenders in his vicinity could reach him, unleashed a wickedly dipping shot from the arc of the penalty box, sending the ball zipping past the raised right hand of Fernando Álvez, Uruguay’s goalkeeper. “He’s hit it that early, the keeper hasn’t expected it,” said Trevor Francis, commentating for ITV.

It was the cue for a brief shot of Schillaci’s wild eyes before his disappearance beneath a mound of blue shirts. “It was an instinctive thing,” he remembers. “I didn’t think. The ball came and like strikers have to do, I hit it with my left foot and scored a great goal. Even the TV commentator was taken by surprise.”

“Totò, the fable continues,” declared Gazzetta dello Sport, which informed its readers afterwards that the Sicilian had now overtaken Franco Baresi in a poll to find the most-loved Azzurri player.

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The first words of Schillaci’s autobiography Il gol è tutto, are “You’ve killed Falcone.” They are the words of Giovanni Trapattoni, his then coach at Juventus. The Falcone in question was Judge Giovanni Falcone, the prominent anti-mafia investigator murdered, along with his wife and three police escort officers, by a bomb on the highway from Palermo airport (which now bears his name along with that of another murdered judge, Paolo Borsellino). The date was 23 May 1992.

Recalling that conversation, Schillaci tells me, “He said that because he was upset about what had happened. He would’ve said it without thinking too much.

“I didn’t take it too strongly. In fact, I said to him, ‘Mister, I was with Baggio, you can ask him. I’ve not killed anyone today.’

“Palermo was a city on fire, where so many things were happening. I don’t like it that people link Palermo with the mafia. There are good people here; it’s a great place, an extraordinary city, and there are positive and negative sides. At that moment, I felt really bad for Palermo.”

As a Sicilian playing in the north, Schillaci faced regular insults. Fans would chant, “Schillaci steals tyres” – a reference to his brother Giuseppe’s arrest after he lent friends a spanner and they did just that. There was graffiti daubed on the wall of his apartment building. “In Turin I lived in an apartment, and the graffiti said, ‘terrone’ [the insult for people from the south of Italy who live off the land] but I was very proud to be a terrone. I understood this was within the football context. There’s always this rivalry between Torino and Juventus, and I said, if they were insulting me, it’s because they’re afraid of me.

“In Italy, there’s always been this racism or antagonism between north and south. Consider that a lot of Sicilians emigrate all over the world, like to the USA, and they get ahead, people who didn’t have a penny and left with a cardboard suitcase.”

For a month in the summer of 1990, though, Italy had a Sicilian hero. Amid his flood of World Cup feats, the left-wing satirical weekly magazine Cuore Mundial ran a feature titled “Schillaci resolves the southern question”. (A divide that still endures – in 2015, the lowest average annual household income in Italy was the €21,950 recorded in Sicily; in Piedmont, the region where Turin lies, the figure was €30,260.)

Schillaci received a reminder of the world he had left behind on the eve of the match against Uruguay on June 25, when he called an old friend back in Sicily and learned of the death of a boyhood associate, shot dead by the police.

“He had problems in his childhood, but when we played together, he used always to encourage me because he saw my abilities, and he’d always tell me that if I didn’t become a footballer, he’d kill me,” he remembers. “Life in our neighbourhood wasn’t easy. There are good people and bad people, and a lot of lads went down a very different route.”

Schillaci had barely attended school and instead was out working from the age of eleven. “Every day, I’d work with my grandfather. I liked working; I wasn’t interested in going to school. It wasn’t my strong point. I did all types of job.”

His first was collecting pitchers of wine for the bar where his grandfather worked. Another was for a milkman, rising at 4am to help on the morning round. No wonder he looked knackered at 25.

“Living in a very poor neighbourhood is like that,” Schillaci continues. “With its problems, you can go off the rails, but football changed my life.” Indeed, it probably saved it: in his autobiography, he recounts the occasion a teenage rival turned up in the neighbourhood looking for him with a gun. Fortunately, Schillaci was at the football club – the same club where we are sitting for this interview – doing extra shooting practice.

Palermo today is the perfect city for a weekend break: history, architecture, food, sea, sunshine. As if to illustrate the point, Sarah Greene, the former Blue Peter presenter, walks by singing “Volare” at one surreal moment a few hours before my meeting with Schillaci.

A 10-minute walk past Palermo’s opera house, Teatro Massimo, moving away from the centre of town, is Il Capo, the market district where Schillaci spent the first five years of his life and in whose narrow streets he began working with his grandfather. There, he would join other boys for kickabouts on the cobbled square adjoining the parish church, the Chiesa di Santa Maria della Mercede, drawing the priest out to complain about the thud of the ball against the large brown door that served as a goal.

The raised square looks down on Via Cappucinelle, a sloping street lined by market stalls. Two men stand washing fish in plastic bowls. Next door, a stall displays nine varieties of olive. A man with white hair and a mouth of missing teeth pauses from selling brushes to point and tell me, “When he was little, he played there.”

A short walk up the street leads to Bar Casisa, an unfussy place with an entrance obscured by scaffolding and sheets of corrugated iron. Inside, on the tiled wall, I spot an Italia 90 sticker. Behind the bar is Salvo. His grandmother, he tells me, was a Schillaci, making Totò a distant cousin.

“I played with him,” says Salvo, beginning a time-worn lament. “I was better than him. At 16, I went to Varese in Serie B. I broke my leg in three places.” The chubby, balding man beside me nods in agreement. “Ci vuole fortuna,” he says. You need luck.

This tight maze of streets was awash with Italian flags in the summer of 1990. One of their own had become the luckiest of them all. And Schillaci gained a sense of the excitement back on his home island via the new toy he had received as a member of Italy’s World Cup squad: a mobile phone. “All the players were given a mobile and it was something quite unusual in that period,” he smiles.

The first call he would make after each match was back home to his parents. There, he heard the wave of noise and excitement breaking on the streets outside the family home in the CEP, the estate where they lived on the north-western fringe of Palermo.

“You could hear the enthusiasm, and they were singing songs comparing me to Pelé.” To the tune of Mozart’s “Eine kleine Nachtmusik”, he sings the one in question: “Noi abbiamo un siciliano che / Gioca al calcio meglio di Pelé.” It translates as, “We’ve got a Sicilian who plays football better than Pelé.”

“My father lives in a district near here,” he adds, “and when I scored a goal, he wouldn’t go down to the square to celebrate like the rest. He’d go and stand on the balcony and there’d be all these people on the street below, waving to him. He was like the Pope.

“It was very emotional seeing people’s affection towards me and my father. It’s true, I cried tears of joy.

“It’s as if it was all predestined. I lived at number 19 Via La Sfera in Palermo. Sfera means ball, and that was my shirt number for the World Cup. I was born prematurely, after seven months, and my shirt at Messina was number seven.

“My story’s like a film, but it’s the reality because in a year my life changed completely. There was even the birth of my son Mattia during the World Cup [a birth he missed, having played in the Italy-Uruguay match just hours earlier]. From Serie B with Messina, I go to Juventus and then to the national team, and become the star player. I think it’s impossible to repeat a story like this.

“I found myself in a different world. I was the hero of the World Cup; the Golden Shoe, the best player at the World Cup, second in the Ballon D’Or. I was in a situation I couldn’t explain. If you were writing a film script, you’d say it couldn’t happen.”

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“Please don’t wake me up,” was the Gazzetta dello Sport’s headline after his quarter-final strike against the Republic of Ireland, but the dream did come to an end. While further goals followed against Argentina and England, the latter, from the penalty spot, came not in the final but in the third-place match.

On a positive note, it ensured that he surpassed Czechoslovakia’s Tomáš Skuhravý as the tournament’s top scorer. “We won third place and it allowed me to win the Golden Shoe, which was huge for me, but I’d have given that up to play in the final,” he admits.

A surreal summer concluded with him spending a holiday in the palace of Vittorio Emanuele di Savoia, the Prince of Naples and son of the last king of Italy, Umberto II. After that, reality bit. “It was a disastrous year,” he observes of the post-World Cup descent.

“It felt like a building had come down on top of me. It was hard to come to terms with it, as it wasn’t in my expectations – I’d just wanted to be part of the group, not to get that far. During the World Cup, all these journalists, media, TV were around me, and I thought, ‘What’s happening to me?’ It was harder to handle that than actually going out to play in the World Cup.

“I’d feel embarrassed when they called me to speak on TV, as I’d not had much of an education. So, becoming famous around the world was the hardest thing to handle.

“After the World Cup, I was no longer ‘Schillaci from Messina’ but ‘Schillaci from the Mondiali [World Cup]’, and everybody expected me to do things differently than before – you know, outstanding performances, the key player, the man to make the difference – and it was also very difficult because defenders were looking at me differently too, not like before.”

Schillaci’s autobiography lays out a year of missteps on and off the pitch. In a fixture against Bologna in November 1990, he earned himself a one-match ban for threatening opposition forward Fabio Poli with the words, “I’ll have you shot.” A difficult relationship with Luigi Maifredi, who had replaced Dino Zoff as Juventus coach in the close season, did not help, and after a six-month scoring drought, he ended the 1990-91 campaign with just five goals. His seventh and last goal for Italy arrived at the season’s end, in a 2-1 European Championship qualifying loss in Norway on 5 June 1991.

With his marriage collapsing, meanwhile, Rita, his first wife – who later began a much-publicised relationship with Gianluigi Lentini, subject of a world-record £13 million transfer to AC Milan in 1992 – had him followed and even put a mini-microphone in his sweater when seeking evidence of his serial cheating.

A transfer to Inter offered a fresh start, but there was no salvaging the spark of his annus mirabilis. It is possible here to draw a parallel with Paul Gascoigne, another free spirit from the ‘other’ end of a country; two players who touched the sky in the Italia 90 bubble but then fell to earth. “At Inter, I started really well, scoring five goals in three games, but then I got injured – a serious groin tear – and was out for more than six months. It got me down as every time I recovered, I pulled up again.”

In 1994, aged 29, he left Italian football for Japan, where he became one of the biggest names in the fledgling J.League – a move made, he admits, “thinking more of my wallet”.

Thanks to his four years in Japan, he could set up the school where I find him today, and it is not his only current involvement in the game. “I do some work with the Juventus legends and for RAI [the Italian state broadcaster] on their Sunday football show Quelli che il Calcio.

“In the end, I’m happy with what I do. I don’t have any ambition to earn more money: I’m more curious about visiting as many places as possible, something you don’t get to do when you’re a footballer.”

When not off travelling and exploring the world, Italy’s 1990 hero has days like this one, back on the same patch of Palermo whence he once set out on his improbable journey. “When I see that desire to play in the eyes of the boys,” he says, “it does fill me with joy, as I see myself reflected in them and remember when I was a boy.” In the eyes. It always was in the eyes with Totò.

*******

This is an edited extract from World in Motion: The Inside Story of Italia 90, the Tournament that Changed Football, published by DeCoubertin.