Antonio Cassano knows where he wants to be this summer. He spent the last one relaxing on a beach (source in Italian) with his wife Carolina and their two sons Christopher and Lionel, but this year he has grander ambitions in mind. The Parma forward has his heart set on a trip to Brazil, where he hopes to make his first-ever World Cup appearance for Italy, per Gazzetta dello Sport (in Italian).
It is remarkable to think that he has never taken part in such a tournament before. Cassano was, and still is, one of the most naturally gifted footballers of his generation, a forward of such extraordinary talent that Roma saw fit to invest 60 billion Lira (roughly £18 million) in acquiring him from Bari back in 2001, when he was still just 19 years old.
Such investment almost seemed modest after seeing the goal he had scored against Inter to open his Serie A account two years earlier. Making his first-ever start as a senior professional, Cassano sealed an upset victory for Bari when he controlled a 40-yard pass on his heel without breaking stride, flicked the ball over his own head, and beat two defenders before burying the ball into the near corner of the net.
Talent will only get you so far, though, without an accompanying work ethic. We know now that Cassano would never fully live up to his potential, distracted too often by food, women or both. He boasted infamously in his 2008 autobiography of having slept with “600-700 women,” and detailed how, after being sold by Roma to Real Madrid in 2006, he befriended a waiter at the team’s hotel who would smuggle in ladies and pastries.
And then there were the "Cassanate"—the Cassano-isms—a term invented by then-Roma coach Fabio Capello to describe his forward’s various meltdowns. The player walked out of practice three times in a single season back at Roma, and has thrown many well-documented tantrums since, from his on-pitch diatribe against a referee after being sent off for Sampdoria against Torino in 2008 to a reported training ground set-to (in Italian) with his manager Andrea Stramaccioni at Inter last year.
When his mind is focused, though, Cassano has always remained capable of exceptional feats. Since that lost year-and-a-half in Madrid, he has enjoyed far more productive stints at Sampdoria and then Milan—helping the former to a fourth-place finish in 2010 and the latter to a Scudetto in 2011. His marriage to Carolina four years ago did not alter the player’s character overnight, but finding love does seem to have had a calming influence on his behaviour.
Yet while there have always been club managers willing to take a risk on such talent, the same has not always been true at the international level. Marcello Lippi, the man who led Italy into each of the last two World Cups, overlooked Cassano for both. If that was an understandable decision in 2006, the player having begun to slip from view in Madrid, then it was an extremely contentious one in 2010.
Many fans and journalists had campaigned hard for Cassano to be taken to South Africa, but Lippi was unmoved—preferring to rely as much as possible on players he had won with four years earlier. Italy’s subsequent failure to win a single game at the tournament only strengthened the convictions of those who had disagreed with the forward’s omission.
Cesare Prandelli immediately reversed course after replacing Lippi in the summer of 2010, making Cassano a fixture of Italy’s starting XI as they prepared for Euro 2012. At the tournament itself, the forward started in every game, scoring only once but playing a key part in his team’s build-up play. It was he who eluded two defenders before swinging over the cross from which Mario Balotelli headed home Italy’s opener against Germany in the semi-final.
And yet since that tournament, Cassano has not played a single game for the Azzurri. Not long after it had finished, Prandelli indicated (in Italian) that he was keen to give younger players an opportunity, and he has been true to those words, awarding first caps to the likes of Ciro Immobile and Lorenzo Insigne up front.
But now, as the 2014 World Cup approaches, the manager finds himself with some significant dilemmas up front. His intended starting strike partnership for the tournament, Mario Balotelli and Giuseppe Rossi, seems suddenly uncertain—with the former in poor form and the latter still recovering from his latest knee injury. Pablo Osvaldo wound up playing more games than any other striker in qualifying, but he is not starting regularly for Juventus.
Balotelli still seems most likely to lead the line, but it is not clear who Prandelli would use as his second, deeper-lying forward, if Rossi was not ready in time for the tournament. Stephan El Shaarawy might have been a candidate, but he too has been out for months with an injury. Insigne or Gabbiadini would each be gamble, boasting just five caps between them. Francesco Totti presents an intriguing option, but would need to be persuaded out of international retirement first, having not played for the Azzurri in eight years.
Cassano, meanwhile, makes his case for inclusion more eloquently by the week. He was the star of Parma’s 4-2 win away to Milan this weekend, his chipped through ball for Ezequiel Schelotto after five minutes drawing a foul in the box from the Milan goalkeeper Christian Abbiati, who was subsequently sent off. Cassano converted the penalty himself, before adding another goal from open play in the second half.
That brought his league tally for this season to 11, just three fewer than he managed in his most prolific campaign, with Roma back in 2003-04. But with Cassano, goals are only ever one small part of the picture. He has five assists, and according to Whoscored.com, also leads the entire division with an average of 2.7 key passes per game.
As ever with Cassano, there are concerns about his fitness, and Prandelli might well wonder how the player’s body would hold up to the heat and humidity of a summer tournament in Brazil. Some have also asked whether calling him up at this late stage might cause a distraction, as well as sending out a bad signal to players who have been involved throughout the qualifying campaign.
But day by day, the cries for Cassano’s inclusion for Brazil get louder. A poll conducted by Gazzetta dello Sport (in Italian) over the weekend found that more than 73 percent of its readers wanted him in Italy's World Cup squad.
Perhaps Lippi was right in the first place, and Cassano would only end up letting his country down on the biggest stage of all. But wouldn’t it be a shame to let such a gloriously gifted player’s career fade away, without ever finding out?