Every once in a while, you watch a player that makes you think “if only”. Any follower of the Premier League would nod in agreement as the names of Matt Le Tissier and Paul Gascoigne are mentioned as players who could have illuminated the game for years, but instead restricted themselves to the occasional moment of brilliance, and, in Gazza’s case, the bottom of too many bottles of beverage. A player not plying his trade in the English game, but still as talented and as controversial as they come, is arguably the most talented Italian of his generation. Ladies and gentlemen, this is the story of Antonio Cassano.
Born in Bari just a day after Italy won the 1982 World Cup, Cassano was always destined for greatness. Some have argued that his rebellious nature is a result of his father leaving the family shortly after his birth. Indeed, his troubled relationship with Fabio Capello, whom he’s worked under at Roma and Real Madrid, was affectionally described by Cassano as one of the “Father/Son” variety after the departure of the now England-manager from AS Roma.
On the pitch, watching Cassano exert his talents is like watching an imaginative, visually stunning movie with a host of plot twists. The latest example of his imagination and beautiful vision was his one-two with Robinho followed by a lovely disguised, reversed pass for Rodney Strasser to win their game at Cagliari on Thursday. Off the pitch, his antics and comments often resembles more of a Noir-film attracting a cult-following than an epic masterpiece. His latest falling out with Sampdoria is the latest in a long list of controversy surrounding his career. After his Milan debut, Cassano was in typically headline-making mood, claiming he didn’t even understand what the matchwinner, 20-year old Strasser, said, even though he speaks three languages. Perhaps not communicating with the Italian magician is the safest way of avoiding a fallout with him. At least he delivers what he promises, as he once was quoted: “There are two types of games I never mess up. Debuts and derbies.” Something for Inter-fans to look forward to, surely..
As the young Cassano made his debut in 1999 for his hometown club against Lecce, subsequently making 48 appearances in two seasons for i Galletti, he attracted interest from the countries top clubs. In 2001, he signed for capital giants AS Roma, in a deal reported to be worth an incredible 30 million euro. The excessive fee drew comments from many of the games top names, including Juventus-director Luciano Moggi, who claimed it was “too soon to understand how much he is worth.” Too soon it proved to be, and in a debut season which yielded 5 goals for the livewire supporting striker, he showed signs of his huge promise, but no guarantee that he could deliver for Fabio Capello’s side on a consistant basis.
His 5 years at the heart of Italy resulted in 118 appearances and 39 goals, in addition to numerous showings of his incredible, unique way and vision of playing the game. Brilliant football and magical moments were only one side of the medal, though, as Cassano, as has been evident throughout his career, showcased his darker sides too. Days after making his debut for the national team, he fell out with his manager Capello over an omission from a traning match. In the 2003 Coppa Italia final against Milan he was sent off, and responded by flashing the sign of the horns at the referee as he walked off the pitch. During the 04-05 campaign he fell out with coach Luigi Delneri, but later captained the side under new coach Bruno Corti. His Roma career came to an abrupt end in January 2006, as talks over a new contract stalled and the one time fans favourite flew his nest for pastures new in the shape of Real Madrid. The transfer fee was a paltry 5 million euros, leaving Roma fans and management alike a bitter taste in the mouth.
In Madrid, he was reunited with his former coach Capello, but his Spanish adventure bore more hallmarks of his controversial personality than his brilliant footballing abilities. Falling out with Capello after openly criticizing him in conversation with his teammates, Cassano became unwanted. Goals in his debut and in the derby against Atletico Madrid, his only two strikes during a turbulent stay, couldn’t salvage his reputation with his new fans, and in the summer of 2007 he was loaned to Sampdoria following comments from president Ramon Calderon suggesting his attitude was far from desirable.
In Sampdoria, Cassano again revelled in being the big fish in a small pond. During his season on loan, 10 goals in 22 appearances and a number of breathtaking displays, reminiscent of a younger version of himself, reinvented the attacking virtuoso’s career. Playing on every string of his bow, be it wonderful passes to release his teammates, dashing dribbles or stunning finishes from every thinkable and unthinkable angel, Antonio again delivered. His performances reminded the Italian footballing public of why they once fell in love with the young attacker. 2 and a half more years followed at Sampdoria after his transfer was made permanent, where he established himself as an idol for the faithful fans of his new club. 96 matches and 35 goals during his spell in the city of Genoa secured his status as one of Italy’s finest talents.
His career with the national team, the Azzuri, leaves a lot to be desired. Only 16 appearances and 4 goals reflects more on his untameable nature than his lack of quality. In an international enviroment where calm and stability in the squad is of utmost importance, it doesn’t seem like the various chiefs of Italian football has found room for a player who aren’t afraid to voice his opinion, uncensored and honest.
As his January transfer to AC Milan again gives him a chance at a major club, one fighting for the Scudetti and perhaps even bigger honours in the Champions League, the question remains if Antonio Cassano can show the world that he indeed is capable of honouring his natural gifts. He will be remembered fondly for the moments of pure ecstacy, his audaciousness, but can he gain access to a higher tier of footballing heroes? Can he be remembered for the trophies he inspired his team to win? Still only 28 years of age, time is on his side if he is to achieve true greatness on the big scene.
This article started with a reference to Matt Le Tissier, the Southampton-legend who in the eyes of his teammates could have been one of the worlds best players but for his lack of desire and will to train, and Paul Gascogine, of which most of you are familiar with the downfall of. Is it fair then, to compare Antonio Cassano to those examples of, arguably, wasted talent? So far, it seems there is, as Cassano has failed to stamp his mark on the national team and at Real Madrid, his first chance of enthralling the universe of football viewers at a huge club. He’s got his second chance now, and as many say he’s matured, only time will tell if the misunderstood genius of Antonio Cassano can reach worldwide appraisal. With his abundance of talent and arrogance, would you bet against him?
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