World Cup-Bound Antonio Cassano Never More Important to the Azzurri

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World Cup-Bound Antonio Cassano Never More Important to the Azzurri
Marco Vasini/Associated Press

There was a time when Antonio Cassano did not expect to play in the 2012 European Championship. He called the opportunity “a gift,” per the Daily Mail, and he said he would make the most of it. He ended up scoring once and setting up a crucial goal in the semi-final against Germany.

Then the World Cup approached, and he was just as doubtful. No possibility of playing in the biggest of tournaments. “I have 0.0% chance of making the World Cup,” he said (h/t Gianluca Di Marzio). Of course, Cassano admitted that he was thinking about it, the 31-year-old running out of time. Cassano was scoring goals for fun at Parma and behaving like never before. He would even smile while sitting on the bench as a substitute. He was born again as a father of two with a supportive wife beside him.

And something changed. He wasn’t so content with going to Brazil on vacation this summer, as he had previously told Sky Sport Italia (h/t Football Italia). He wanted to go there with the Azzurri. In March, Cassano told the BBC that he had lost 10 kilograms and that he had cut down on focaccia, the breaded delight being one of his favourite things.

Then he made the provisional 30-man Italy roster. Then he played in his first international match since the Euro final, a friendly against Ireland last weekend—even if only for 33 minutes. And then he was selected to go to his first World Cup.

Claudio Villa/Getty Images

His relationship with Italy was never solid. He never played consistently for his country, sometimes going years in between appearances. He has played a full 90 minutes in the blue shirt just five times since 2003. It was a great shame: Things had started so well for Cassano. He made his debut with hometown club Bari at the age of 17, and he was then sold for €30 million to Roma. Cassano was still only a teenager.

Things grew worse. He was shipped out of Roma to Real Madrid. On the way, he slapped his opponents, per The Telegraph, and he argued with officials. And he ate. Madrid fined Cassano for “every gram he was overweight,” wrote Glenn Moore in The Independent in 2012.

There were times when Cassano would trot on the field in his bare underwear, the many occasions he’d sleep with escorts, and the time he went on TV imitating Fabio Capello, then coach of Madrid. Capello would leave Cassano on the bench and force him to train separately. Cassano told Capello that he was “as false as Monopoly money,” per the Daily Mail. Anarchy was the prevalent mood.

Then Sampdoria, AC Milan and Inter shared him for the next few years. He left all three clubs after disputes with management. “Antonio is a good and generous person,” said the late Sampdoria president Riccardo Garrone (h/t The Independent), “But when he loses his temper, he really cannot control himself.”

But many of his teammates adore him. Cassano struck a relationship with Zlatan Ibrahimovic at Milan. The both had a knack for kicking teammates. Ibrahimovic writes in his book, I am Zlatan (h/t Steve Amoia):

Cassano has some fame as a bad boy as I do. He likes to showcase himself and speak [of himself] as a fantastic player. The lad often has had past problems with teammates and coaches. Among them Fabio Capello during his spell with AS Roma. But Antonio has a marvelous quality in his play. I really like it.

Once Cassano even captained Italy in Bari during a 2-1 friendly win over Spain. He had returned to the dressing room that evening after doing the pre-game warmups, and he found the armband waiting in his locker. It was Gianluigi Buffon who left it there. The two spend a lot of time together on the national team. “I think Cassano doesn't really know how important he is for us on the pitch and in the dressing room,” Buffon told UEFA.com in 2011.

That’s probably why so many cared when Cassano fell ill in October of 2011. While flying back to Milan from Rome, Cassano began to suffer stroke-like symptoms and struggled to speak. He required minor heart surgery, and he was out for six months. Andres Iniesta and Sergio Ramos gave him calls. So did Jose Mourinho, who had even blocked a move for Cassano as coach of Inter years earlier.

“If I am honest,” said Cassano, according to Marcus Christenson of The Guardian. “I was afraid of dying, in particular during those days before the operation.” Cassano even thought about retiring after watching Piermario Morosini, a perfectly healthy and unsuspecting midfielder for Livorno, collapse and die on the pitch.

Things changed after that. He wasn’t so temperamental. It was Cesare Prandelli, coach of the national team, that started to see the difference. “I’ve found a more mature Cassano,” said Prandelli, per the LA Times. “His marriage has calmed him down but he’s developed as a player.” Cassano started talking tactics, “Something he didn’t do in the past,” said Prandelli.

Things only improved at Parma. He moved there last year, and he wasn’t always a favourite playing at Stadio Tardini, the fans booing him on a few occasions. That did not dampen anything. He ended up scoring 12 goals in Serie A—a single-season high for Cassano—while assisting six others. He struck up a fantastic relationship with coach Roberto Donadoni.

Luca Bruno/Associated Press

The secret was simple: The two spoke quite often, and even though Cassano made Donadoni angry “at times,” his teammates were there to help. “Without them,” said Donadoni (h/t Football Italia), “he would’ve struggled.”

Cassano was once just a brat, but he now knows who he is. He is more reflective, more honest. He is not a leader by example. He is not super fit and always available. “If we’re counting on me to keep Mario [Balotelli] on the straight and narrow,” said Cassano (h/t Daily Mail), “then we are in a bad way.”

There is a willingness on his part to admit his failings. But he did not always face reality. He never worked while growing up, even though his father left him, and his mother had to do multiple jobs. He was born in the slums of Bari, the old town, and they were poor. Instead, Cassano played football in the streets, writes Duncan White of The Telegraph, hearing the echoes of sirens and gun shots. Cassano has admitted that he would have turned into a criminal had it not been for football.

Those flaws are human. But people still believe in him. “If Italy have talent,” Ramos once said, according to Christenson at The Guardian. “It’s called Cassano.” He can play as a winger or just behind the striker, as a tricky false 9 who can play the simple or long ball and break the defence. He is the only true trequartista in the Italy lineup. He is unpredictable in life just as he is on the field.

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