The Curious Case of Il Gioiello di Bari Vecchia
It was a historic moment. 1982 was a year calcio will never forget. It had taken 12 years for the Italian team to reach the World Cup final, and on July 11, Enzo Beardzot’s team, captained by the legendary Dino Zoff lifted the golden chalice after 44 years. A nation had been re-united under one footballing faith.
Antonio Cassano has divided opinion like no other modern day Italian footballer. Gino de Blasio goes under the skin of the man to find what makes him tick and why we should pray to see ‘Peter Pan’ again
As providence would have it, 12 July 1982 was to be the start of another footballing beginning for Italy – the birth of Antonio Cassano.
“In school, I would get 2 out of 10 in every subject. A great result if you think about it, obtained through constant hard work. I have been held back six times, between primary and high school”
Born in Bari and raised by his mother, Cassano has proven to be a controversial figure of calcio. Fabio Capello used to call his tantrums and subsequent reactions “Cassanate” (literally translated as “doing a Cassano”); not as a modest term of endearment though.
He has played for his home town, Roma, Real Madrid, Sampdoria and now resides in the bosom of Milan. He has been surrounded by some of the greatest in the game, played with those who have achieved the highest of footballing honours; so why hasn’t the boy from Bari been more recognised?
That match against Inter
It was a 30 yard pass, a pass which an 18-year-old Cassano, in his debut season in 99-00 with Bari, saw and swooped on; the ball bounced; he controlled with the outside of his boot; it bobbled in front of him. Laurent Blanc cuts across, but to no avail, Antonio sweeps between two Inter defenders before taking aim and firing the shot home.
“If it wasn’t for that game against Inter I would have become a thief, or worse, either way, a delinquent. A lot of people that I know have become involved in that life. That game my talent shone, and it took me away from a future of potential s**t”
It would be fair to say, that match against Inter put Antonio squarely on the map of calcio. Being a prodigious talent from a humble background, the media frenzy it would cause and the subsequent future it would provide him, must now be a distant memory.
It would be with a move to Roma that Cassano would begin to make his name, and stake his claim of being one of the best talents in Europe. But it would be under the guidance of Fabio Capello, and friendship of Francesco Totti that Cassano would go through the highs and lows of top flight football.
With Totti, there would be a telepathic link between the two. When one moved into space, another would feed the ball, it would be some of the best attacking football that you could witness, although blighted by some performances that you wish you hadn’t seen.
But it was to be his relationship with Capello that would be the beginning of the end for his time at Roma. On more than one occasion, (approximately 20 times), he told him to f**k off. He missed training sessions and even incurred the wrath of club president, Rossella Sensi for reasons unknown.
And then there was Real Madrid…
“I used to play between market stalls, everyone wanted me in their team and I would bet 10, 15, 20 thousand lire on the team that I would play on. I wasn’t cocky, I wasn’t stupid: I wanted the money, I had to give myself the best odds.”
His move away from the eternal city came as a shock to many, but a surprise to few. His temperament had gotten to the likes of Capello and other team mates including his closest friend Totti with apparent training ground bust-ups. His lack of conformity annoyed the echelons at the top. Real came calling and he succumbed, being the second ever Italian player to sign for them after former Roma teammate, Christian Panucci.
But his time was to be fraught with injury, poor performances and famously gaining weight leading to subsequent fines for every kilo over his established playing weight. And then Real appointed Fabio Capello, as their manager. He was yet to meet his old coach, and in an infamous youtube moment, Cassano was caught mimicking Capello, leading to the slippery path of exclusion, suspension and contract release…
Sampdoria, no really, he went to Sampdoria
Well, where else could he go? Cassano was derided by the press and his lack of playing time at the end of his Real Madrid days were detrimental to securing a top tier team; no offence Sampdoria fans.
His time though was to be fruitful. He quickly became a local legend. His displays of the Cassano of old was lauded by everyone, even if his temper at points got him carded and a shirt throwing incident landed him a five match ban. But his first year provided the highest point for Sampdoria since winning the scudetto in the early 90s, a return to European competition was awaited.
His second season was more of the same. Sterling performances with co–striker Pazzini saw him produce some of his best displays, leading many to compare the partnership to that of Mancini and Vialli. Sampdoria finished fourth, a Champions League playoff followed, only to end in disappointment for the blucerchiati.
It was to be his third season that the good old Antonio showed the attitude that had left him out of the national team. Following a heated debate with the club president, Cassano had his contract terminated, and subsequently a sporting tribunal saw that Antonio couldn’t play until January 2011 when….Milan came calling.
“I was poor, I want to be precise, in my whole life I have not worked a single day. I don’t know how to do anything. Up to today I’ve spent 17 years being a scoundrel and spent 9 being a millionaire. I still have 8 years to balance up the books.”
Antonio moved from Sampdoria to Milan in the January transfer window of 2010, for a fee yet to be understood by NASA scientists! The complexity ensured Milan paid little, very little for the jewel of Bari, but it was a risk. Could he guarantee the talent without the tantrum? Could Milan manager Max Allegri and co. keep him away from straying?
It was to be the case. Cassano was instrumental in the second half for Milan in the 2011 season. Providing movement and goals at the front, he eased the burden on Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Pato, linking brilliantly with anyone he played with. His talent was at the forefront, with Milan’s environment of highly decorated former players and staff, keeping him out of trouble.
A temporary set back
And so it was to be the start of a second season that “Fant’Antonio” was to begin displaying the best his abilities could provide. Recalled to the Italy squad under Cesare Prandelli, and providing a flux of assists for club and country, it seemed we were all being treated to the Cassano we knew he could always be.
But it was to be a return from an away match against Roma that saw the Italian football world stunned. Cassano suffered an ischemic-based stroke. His life momentarily threatened, his career was instantly put on the back burner, for club and ultimately country. Whilst the prognosis remains a minimum six month absence from the pitch, it has only recently emerged that Antonio was seen back in training with the Milan squad, only three months after prognosis.
“The football gods have decided that this is to be a temporary setback” said one Milan fan on twitter. But now, with the prospect of Cassano back on the pitch sooner rather than later, if football miracles can happen, please dear universe, let this be one of them.