Roberto Baggio, Alessandro Del Piero, Francesco Totti, Antonio Cassano. Of the precocious and supremely-talented forwards to have graced the top flight of Italian football in the past three decades, three have become synonymous with greatness.
Del Piero is adored in Turin, Totti is revered in Rome and Baggio is venerated by pretty much every red-blooded Italian football fan from Naples to Milan.
Yet, the name Antonio Cassano never fails to elicit a rueful grimace from the most ardent of Serie A enthusiasts. Ask any football fan with an interest in Calcio who was the most gifted teenager they’d witnessed emerging onto the scene in the past few decades, and Antonio Cassano’s name will appear without fail.
Where Totti, Baggio and Del Piero succeeded, what exactly happened to the man AS Roma once signed for €30 million at the tender age of 19? Ostensibly, as with so many footballers, a talent that promises so much is hard to sustain in the gruelling realm of the modern player.
When he arrived in Rome, having become one of world football’s most expensive teenagers, Cassano had already acquired somewhat of a mythical status at his home club, Bari. Dubbed “the jewel of old Bari” after a series of scintillating performances, his effortless ball control coupled with a deft technique and low centre of gravity drew comparisons with Napoli hero Diego Maradona.
So, when Roma shelled out more than they had on previous club record signing Gabriel Batistuta in 2000, it seemed like Cassano was on an upward trajectory to the summit of the game, thus continuing the Italian lineage that had begun with Baggio and been bolstered by Del Piero and Totti.
Playing at Roma gave Cassano the perfect opportunity to learn from one of Italy’s best. By this stage in his career, Francesco Totti was established firmly as a Roman legend, having captained il Giallorossi to only their third-ever Scudetto in 2001, and was already a permanent fixture in a lethal Italian national side.
Yet, Cassano, rather than capitalise on the opportunity, cut somewhat of a troubled fixture in the country’s capital, publicly falling out with Fabio Capello, before causing Luigi Delneri so much grief as to completely omit him from the league squad.
His on-field antics did little to endear him to the Giallorossi faithful. Rather than handle himself with the magnanimous nature of Francesco Totti, his on-field spats, tantrums and bust-ups became a spectacle of ridicule.
The mental resolve possessed by his forebears was absent in Cassano. While Baggio, Del Piero and Totti were each their own kind of maverick, able to complement the success of their teams with individual brilliance, Cassano was beyond taming.
The first signs of the attitude that was to plague Cassano’s career began to surface in his formative years in Rome, but in spite of his off-field issues, he was still voted Serie A Young Player of the Year twice while at Roma, in 2001 and 2003. He remains the only footballer to claim the award more than once.
But, after four seasons in the capital, including a brief spell as captain, Cassano’s time at the club came to an unsavoury end. Having clashed with club officials over a new contract, he drew the ire of Totti himself and inevitably his fate was sealed. A hasty €5 million transfer to Real Madrid followed and his career took a nose dive.
Cassano was 24 when he was exiled from Rome. At the same point in their careers, Baggio had already starred in Italia ’90, Del Piero had won the Champions League and Totti was captaining his boyhood club to their first Serie A title in 30 years.
In a season-and-half, Cassano went from dangerously-talented wonderkid to overweight bench-warmer, who was fined for every gram he remained over his playing weight. It was here that the demons that had simmered during his time at Roma began to surface with alarming alacrity.
His laid-back manner on the pitch came under due scrutiny, and his lacklustre approach to training earned him few friends in the Spanish capital. At a club where winning was paramount at all costs, Cassano’s indifferent attitude seemed at odds with Real Madrid.
Moreover, tensions with old foe Fabio Capello resurfaced, the Spanish press nicknamed him “Gordito” and he managed just seven league appearances in his only full season with the club.
President Ramon Calderon described Cassano’s attitude as unsustainable, and when you consider this extract from the Italian’s autobiography concerning his time in Madrid, you can see why:
“In Madrid, I had a friend who was a hotel waiter. His job was to bring me three or four pastries after I had sex. He would bring the pastries up the stairs, I would escort the woman to him and we would make an exchange: he would take the girl and I would take the pastries. Sex and then food, a perfect night.”
Thus, in the supposed prime of his career, Cassano found himself moving on once again, having played just 24 league games in the previous two seasons combined.
Somehow, despite the abject failure of his move to Spain, Cassano managed to resurrect the smoking husk of his career at Sampdoria – and there was a glimmer of hope, once more. Could Cassano finally be displaying the maturity and application that had eluded him for so long? The mid-table Genoan club were in dire need of a spark of genius, and Cassano duly obliged.
Demonstrating his talent of old, he established himself as the club’s main man with 37 goals in 106 appearances. Yet, the re-emergence of his dormant talents did not quench his volatile on-pitch nature. He continued to be regarded in footballing circles as a man more infamous for his tantrums and refusal to accept any of his team-mates as equal to himself than a man famous for his talents with a ball.
However, soon enough, after three-and-a-half seasons, the diminutive forward was on the move to a top club once again as he was snapped up by AC Milan. It was here that he formed an enviable partnership with Zlatan Ibrahimovic and collected his one and only Scudetto medal.
Yet, his time at the Rossoneri was marred, although this time, the misfortune that befell him was not of his own making. Diagnosed with a heart defect in his second season, Cassano missed the majority of the campaign, following surgery. His stay in Milan was to be short; with the departure of Ibrahimovic and Silva to PSG, Cassano requested a transfer and jumped ship to cross-city rivals Inter.
From there, Cassano embarked on the well-trodden road of so many Italian forwards before him, and became somewhat of a journeyman, turning out for Inter, Parma and Sampdoria again, in the final throes of his career.
It’s an all-too-familiar shame that, for a footballer so innately talented, Cassano never truly reached, or even came close to, the heights his early potential hinted at. When in full flow, there were precious few in the game that could match his guile and trickery; his deft technique and uncanny ability to split an entire back-line with one impudent ball. The almost churlish manner in which he enjoyed inflicting upon others the most acute embarrassment.
There was an unbridled joy that bordered on temerity about the way Antonio Cassano played the game of football. The game was about him, and him only.
In the end, it was to be his downfall. Baggio, Del Piero and Totti, the unequivocal kings of Italian football were as self-confident as Cassano. They were all equally assured of their own supreme abilities on the football field.
But by that same token, they recognised the needs of the team to be greater than the needs of the individual.
Thus, it is probably the most fitting testament to Cassano’s tumultuous career that the wizened old Fabio Capello once coined the term “Cassanata,” after his one-time prodigy: to describe a player entirely incompatible with team spirit in football.
Never change, Antonio. Never change.