From the fringes to the forefront

World Cup is not always about the stars and their magnificent feats. There have also been quite a few instances of lesser lights coming into the spotlight with compelling performances. By A. Vinod.

When one thinks of the World Cup, he tends to straightaway relate the showpiece event to the magnificent deeds of the game’s all-time greats: Pele, Diego Maradona, Gerd Muller, Franz Beckenbauer, Just Fontaine, Zinedine Zidane, Ronaldo, Mario Kempes, Paolo Rossi, Garrincha and their likes. It is quite natural, as these players dished out performances that were sublime and awe-inspiring; performances that have made the quadrennial event very memorable.

It has always been a joy to watch these players displaying their mesmerising skills with the ball. Yet, there have also been instances of lesser lights coming into the spotlight with compelling performances despite the presence of heavyweights — playing with them or against them — in a World Cup. While a complete list of such players is beyond the scope of this story, especially given the paucity of space, a few of them are too significant to be a footnote.

A typical case in point is Salvatore Schillaci, the Italian striker, who came on as a substitute, but finished as the top scorer of Italia ’90 to become a national hero and a football player of great value almost overnight. Even more, the Italian, nicknamed ‘Toto’, won the Golden Ball as the best player of the 1990 World Cup, ahead of established stars such as Lothar Matthaus and Maradona, who finished second and third.

Roberto Baggio and Andrea Carnevale were the principal men in the Italian attack, while Schillaci was selected only as a substitute and that too after his inventive, aggressive attacking style for Juventus had impressed the Italian manager, Azeglio Vicini. But when he was brought in as a substitute for Carnevale in Italy’s first match, against Austria, Schillaci scored the winner in his team’s 1-0 victory. In the next match against the United States, Schillaci again played as a substitute (for Carnevale), but in the third game, against Czechoslovakia, ‘Toto’ started off with Baggio and scored his second goal of the tournament in Italy’s 2-0 win.

The consistency with which he played to help Italy into the second round earned Schillaci a place in the starting eleven against Uruguay (second round) and Ireland (quarterfinals). The forward did not disappoint — he scored a goal each in the two matches, as Italy defeated Uruguay 2-0 and beat Ireland 1-0 to enter the Round of Four.

In the semi-final, against Argentina, Schillaci retained his place in the first eleven even as Vinci, in a sudden move, left out Baggio and decided to play Gianluca Vialli. The match ended 1-1 at full-time with Schillaci scoring his fifth goal of the tournament before Italy was eliminated in a penalty shootout.

The defeat, however, did not end Schillaci’s fairytale run as he once again scored the winner in Italy’s 2-1 defeat of England in the playoff for the third place. With six goals to his credit, Schillaci won the Golden Boot. He was hailed as the new messiah of the game as well as Italian football.

Schillaci, unfortunately, managed to score only one more goal for Italy in four matches before injury ended his international career in 1991.

Even more amazing is the story of Oleg Salenko, who entered the World Cup record books with a five-goal blitz in Russia’s first round match against Cameroon in USA 94. By the time the two teams met, they were practically out of the tournament, having fared badly in their initial two games (against Brazil and Sweden).

Still, the match — played on June 28, 1994 at the Stanford Stadium in front of a capacity 75,000 crowd — will always be remembered for the two World Cup records that were created. Prior to the match, eight players had scored four goals in a single game at the World Cup, the last one to do so being Emilio Butragueno of Spain against Denmark in 1986.

However, Salenko ended the Group B match with a new standard of five goals in Russia’s 6-1 win over Cameroon.

The other record witnessed at the match was Roger Milla’s 46th-minute strike that saw him become the oldest player (42 years and 39 days) to score in a World Cup match.

Salenko, who had scored Russia’s only goal in the 3-1 loss to Sweden earlier, struck in the 15th, 41st, 44th, 72nd and 75th minutes of the match to climb on top of the scoring chart with six goals. Bulgaria’s Hristo Stoichkov would match Salenko in the end and share the Golden Boot with the Russian. But what makes Salenko’s feat remarkable is the fact that he played four matches less than Stoichkov (seven games).

Salenko is the only player to win the top scorer award in the under-20 World Cup and the FIFA World Cup.

True, both Schillaci and Salenko went off the boil after having a memorable World Cup. Nevertheless, their exceptional performances in the quadrennial tournament are a significant part of the World Cup history and will continue to remain so in the years to come.