Expectations were high in Italy before the 1990 World Cup. They had the league with the best players, they had just built some of the most modern stadiums in the world, and their national team looked capable of winning the World Cup for the fourth time.
They were solid in defence — even for an Italian side this was a very mean backline that wouldn’t concede a goal until the semi-final.
Their midfield was strong in the tackle and creative going forward, and they had a wealth of talent to choose from up front — the Sampdoria duo Roberto Mancini and Gianluca Vialli were tipped to be the stars of the Azzuri.
In their first game they dominated, creating chance after chance, but they could never find the net. Eventually they found their answer when Salvatore Schillaci, from Sicily with just one cap to his name, entered the field of play with just sixteen minutes remaining.
Schillaci had only been playing in the top flight for a few months before the World Cup, but hit form at just the right time for Juventus to ensure his place in the squad, despite never having scored an international goal. Within four minutes of his introduction, Italy were ahead thanks to the head of the Sicilian.
Schillaci continued to score goals and was helped by a young Roberto Baggio coming of age too. Neither found the net in Italy’s 1-0 win over USA but both players started and scored in the victory over Czechoslovakia. That meant Italy went through to the second round with three wins out of three.
Schillaci broke the deadlock again against Uruguay in the second round, and Aldo Serena added another to make sure of Italy’s place in the quarter final.
In the quarters they faced the Republic of Ireland, who had made it that far despite, remarkably, not winning any of their games.
Three draws were enough to see them through in a tight group, and then a penalty shoot-out win over Romania ensured 1990 would be their greatest ever performance at the World Cup.
Although the gap in class was clear between the Italians and the Irish, it was probably their hardest match on the way to the semi-finals as the Republic of Ireland defended heroically.
It took a mistake from goalkeeper Pat Bonner and a calm finish from Schillaci to make the difference between the two sides on this warm night in Rome…
What Happened Next?
Italy won 1-0, but suffered a heartbreaking semi-final loss on penalties to Argentina in Naples, where Schillaci’s goal didn’t prove to be enough this time.
They beat England to claim third place, and Schillaci claimed the Golden Boot.
Toto Schillaci was world famous on the back of these performances, but would only ever score one more international goal as his reputation fell just as quickly as it rose.
Schillaci montage – BBC Grandstand 1990