Supreme talent or sullen trouble-maker? That is the question that has dogged Antonio Cassano, Italian football’s enfant terrible, since the early stages of his career. Capable of moments of extraordinary skill, he is equally likely to exhibit the type of behaviour that has infuriated a plethora of referees, coaches and team-mates down the years. His shows of petulance, for which a new Italian term – cassanata – was actually coined, have become the stuff of legend among followers of Serie A.
“I’d like to go back and do certain things differently," said Cassano recently. "I thought I was the new [Diego] Maradona. I felt like I could win matches all on my own, and out on the pitch I only ever thought of myself. Eventually my team-mates got pretty fed up with me. But for four years now there’s been no nonsense like that. So if I overdo things a little, don’t throw the book at me!"
Now 28 and mellowed by marriage, having tied the knot during the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, Cassano appears to have finally attained a sense of balance on and off the pitch. And that is welcome news for both Sampdoria and Italy, two teams for whom the gifted forward is currently performing with aplomb.
Brought up in the working-class district of San Nicola, in the heart of Bari’s old town, Cassano entered the youth system of his hometown club at the age of 15. Two years later, his speedy progress having been noted by then first-team coach Eugenio Fascetti, he made his Serie A debut in December 1999 during a 1-0 derby defeat to Lecce.
Despite the result, he was named in the starting XI to face Inter Milan the following week. In the 88th minute, with the score tied at 1-1, Cassano produced the first of his career’s many memorable moments. Expertly controlling Simone Perrotta’s high clearance, first with the side of his foot then with his head, he charged into the box, left two defenders in his wake and coolly slotted the ball past the opposing goalkeeper. Cue wild celebrations among the home supporters, as the Cassano legend was born.
“If that match had never happened, I probably would have gone off the rails," he explained. "Many of my friends chose to go down the wrong path in life. That match and my talent helped me to avoid making the same mistakes."
Some, however, might argue that modesty is something he has no need to display, given that he is generally recognised as one of the most technically gifted players of his generation. Seemingly effortless first-time control, mesmerising dribbling skills and pinpoint passes are just some of the many strings to his bow.
In 2001, still just 19, a record-breaking transfer deal took him to Roma, where he lined up alongside his idol, Francesco Totti. Cassano’s provocative nature and general lack of commitment in training did not endear him to the club’s coaching staff – his relationship with Fabio Capello was particularly volatile.
The extrovert also had a knack for infuriating opponents, especially when performing his weekly party trick of nutmegging his marker and murmuring a less than flattering remark while skipping by. Cassano’s five seasons in the Eternal City saw him score 39 goals – and set up many more – in 118 Serie A appearances.
Able to bring an entire stadium to its feet through a moment of genius, Cassano has also had a tendency to fade into obscurity in certain matches. When he arrived at Real Madrid in January 2006, ten kilos' worth of excess weight promptly earned him the nickname ‘El Gordito’ (The Little Fatty), with ‘El Gordo’ (The Fat One) already reserved for Brazilian team-mate Ronaldo.
Following the arrival of old foe Capello in the Spanish capital, Cassano made a serious effort to regain his fitness, and was even recalled to the Italy squad. But the discord between coach and player eventually reached intolerable levels, and the Bari native was subsequently dropped.
Azzurri ups and downs
Cassano has experienced just as many highs and lows with La Nazionale as he has in his domestic career, his displays depending greatly on how well he happened to be getting on with the man in charge at the time. Called up for the first time by Giovanni Trapattoni in November 2003, his excellent performances at UEFA EURO 2004 only served to enhance his reputation in Europe.
Marcello Lippi’s arrival at the helm signalled the beginning of a period in the international wilderness for Cassano, who consequently missed out on Italy’s successful Germany 2006 campaign. During Roberto Donadoni’s tenure, he found himself back in the reckoning, making a handful of appearances between 2006 and 2008. But Lippi’s return led to the Sampdoria player falling out of favour once again, and despite pressure from fans and media to reinstate him, he was again left at home while his erstwhile team-mates travelled to South Africa this past summer.
But when a door closes, a window opens: the recent appointment of Cesare Prandelli has seen Cassano involved with the national team once more, and like Giorgio Chiellini, Daniele de Rossi or Gianluigi Buffon, he has become one of the first names on the team-sheet.
“Today I’m a better player than I was back then. I haven’t given up on trying to magic up those out-of-the-blue moments, but I know now that there are ten other players on the pitch there to help me,” said Cassano, a rejuvenated player since returning to Italy and Sampdoria in particular, a club at which his prolific partnership with Giampaolo Pazzini has exceeded all expectations.
But it would not be stretching the truth to suggest that it is actually another type of alliance that has matured him. “My wife has transformed my life. I can’t really say much more about it because it makes me a bit emotional,” said Cassano about his spouse Carolina, a former water polo player.
“I’d like to play for another four or five years and hopefully take part in a World Cup before I hang up my boots. But if I put in a terrible performance now and again, go easy on me!” he joked to the press, aware that, for some onlookers, his career will always be summed up by one question: genius or trouble-maker?