Gennaro Gattuso and Antonio Cassano, two essential cogs in the well-oiled AC Milan machine, have both recently emerged victorious from six-month combats with the greatest foes they are ever likely to face.

Courageous and strong-willed, they were able to draw on the reserves of passion and resilience that have served them so well in football to overcome their respective illnesses and make triumphant returns to the highest levels of the game. runs the rule over two emblematic players who, whether on the pitch or off it, never know when they are beaten.

Sudden signs
For Cassano, the first indication that all was not well with his body came at Malpensa Airport in late October 2011, as the Milan players were arriving back from a league encounter in Rome. While seeing to his luggage, the forward suddenly lost his balance, and experienced trouble with his vision and speech. At the time, his tired team-mates believed he was indulging in one of his trademark pranks.

Fortunately, club doctor Rudy Tavana immediately recognised the seriousness of the situation, rushing the player to the hospital, where he was diagnosed with ‘ischaemic cerebral damage’, triggered by a congenital problem.

As long as I feel that I’m still doing OK, it’ll be fine. But if I see that I’m not the same player as before, then I’ll thank everyone and go home.

Antonio Cassano

On 4 November Cassano received heart surgery, following which he was advised by doctors to rest for four to six months before resuming any form of physical activity. One month later, the Italy international was back on his feet, and by mid-January, he was jogging on a treadmill.

He began light training with a ball in February, setting himself a goal of getting back to competitive action as quickly as possible, in order to attain the required level of fitness for the upcoming UEFA EURO 2012 tournament.

“I was scared I might die, but once that fear had passed, I thought about stopping football altogether. Happily, it’s all behind me now, and I’ve begun a new life,” said Cassano three weeks ago, after having been given the green light to resume playing.

“As long as I feel that I’m still doing OK, it’ll be fine. But if I see that I’m not the same player as before, then I’ll thank everyone and go home. I’d like the fans to remember the good Cassano. I don’t want any sympathy,” he said.

Five months after the airport incident, Cassano returned to the pitch on 7 April, coming on to a standing ovation in the 79th minute of a match against Fiorentina.

The skilful striker quickly found his feet, concentrating on beating his man and providing through balls for strike partner Zlatan Ibrahimovic. An animated yet futile penalty claim made it clear to onlookers that he had not lost his desire to win.

Cassano is now back where he belongs, and still has almost two months in which to work on his fitness and help the Lombardy side defend their Serie A title.

Partners in pain
“So many people helped me through my ordeal. But I must reserve a special mention for two people: Dr Tavana who, by dragging me to the hospital, essentially saved my life, and national coach Cesare Prandelli, who said all along that he would keep a spot in the EURO squad for me,” he said on the night of his comeback.

From a football point of view, the man at the helm of La Nazionale is likely to be pleased to see such a key player back performing regularly, especially after having recently lost Giuseppe Rossi to injury until next February.

The health problems suffered by Gennaro Gattuso, meanwhile, can be traced back to the week running up to his team’s home game with Lazio on 9 September last year. “I had to take a break from training because I was seeing blotches with my left eye. Straight away, the doctor told me to take some rest, but I was very keen to play in the match on Sunday, even if it went against doctor’s orders,” he recalled.

“Against my better judgement, I ended up playing, and I experienced the most unpleasant 20 minutes of my life. It was as if I was drunk. I could see Ibrahimovic in four different places at the same time. I collided with Alessandro Nesta, who I couldn’t see, even though he was right beside me. Eventually, I had to call it a day,” added Gattuso.

It signalled the beginning of a long nightmare for the tenacious midfielder, one that was exacerbated by the fact that the initial treatment he received for his eye affliction, caused by a neuromuscular disease known as myasthenia, did not produce the desired results. Thankfully, Cassano was often at his side to help keep his spirits up, pulling faces and making fun of the squint brought on by Gattuso’s damaged eye.

I’d like to share my experience with anyone who’s not well and tell them that, within the bounds of possibility, you can still fight and beat your illness.

Gennaro Gattuso

Propelled by passion
“I may be 34, but I never once thought about quitting football. I would miss the adrenaline rush of playing in matches too much. I’m even willing to play for free, as I’ve already explained to our chairman, Adriano Galliani. It’s not a question of money. I always wanted to get back to what I love doing the most. Did you really think I was going to give up for a dodgy eye?” he asked with a grin.

During his enforced lay-off, Gattuso remained close to the team. He continued to fulfil the motivating role of roaring lion in the dressing room, but when the time came to take to the pitch, he would transform into a caged beast, suffering in silence on the substitutes’ bench.

The former Rangers’ player’s courage was finally rewarded on 11 April, when he made a long-awaited comeback in Milan’s 1-0 away win at Chievo, lasting 62 minutes and proudly wearing the captain’s armband. “Being able to train and play again has been like winning my very own UEFA Champions League,” he said.

“Myasthenia is a condition that weakens your muscles. But I’m here, I’m still playing and I feel strong. I’d like to share my experience with anyone who’s not well and tell them that, within the bounds of possibility, you can still fight and beat your illness. I now have to take cortisone every day to remain a player, but I do it because of the passion I have inside me,” Gattuso continued.

I Rossoneri have regained their charismatic leader, a strong, motivating personality with an incredible will to win who, along with Cassano, will likely play a decisive role in the titanic struggle their club is currently involved in with Juventus at the top of the Italian table. And in the event of Milan failing to retain their Serie A title, the two returning stars will content themselves in the knowledge that they have already won a much more important battle.