There was a time and place to simply ignore Antonio Cassano.
His demeanour could've challenged the conduct of a sulking child, given that the Italian turned off many pundits and fans with on-field bravado as a burgeoning star.
Speaking out of turn would have been considered a mild response from him, as he hurled himself—and unsanitary language—to fellow managers, referees and teammates daunted with the task of restraining him. It was an eclectic act that eventually shaped his public persona.
Not that he did anything to really curb it in his infant stages on the football scene. He’d be the one leading a charge of bulls if the moment had it right.
Effusive, acrimonious and averse to the concept of team play, it was as though Cassano was more suitable to redirect all that bottled anger and aggression in a ring.
It stemmed from no singular event—though being raised in bruised neighbourhoods and around sketchy alleys in Bari, perhaps his temperament is something of an inborn tendency—but his petulance festered as his stints with renowned clubs became the butt of derision and scorn.
Fabio Capello, current coach of the England national team, knows more about what Cassano preaches than perhaps anyone else. Capello oversaw the irritable striker at Roma in 2002 and was then again reunited in 2006 at the helm of Real Madrid.
As if nature would cease to be tranquil, the two engaged in so many quarrels and disputes that not only were both bickering incessantly, but they also began a love-hate affair that to this day bears more anecdotes that can be gestated.
Their only mutual quality was that each helped blend a dog’s breakfast of mean-spirited jives and sporadic bouts of respect between them. For opinions cast on each man dithered with the caprice of an eager pup.
“I looked on him as the source of all truth, and then thought [he] was about as genuine as a €3 coin. We couldn’t agree on anything. He would stress the importance of order and discipline; I’d tell him the reasons for disorder and indiscipline. I started doing the opposite of what he said,” Cassano recalls in his recent autobiography, Vi Dico Tutto (I’ll Tell You Everything).
Although Cassano’s infidelities ranged further than what was experienced between him and Capello, it proves to be the most durable example of hardship from his career.
He later recounted that Capello, while at Madrid, would associate anyone with whom Cassano courted off the field as a proponent of his lifestyle. It made him feel like “a malignant cancer, so that anybody with me would be considered an enemy to (Capello)."
Like David Beckham, for example.
"When we were in front of the coach I pretended to hardly know Beckham, in case that made his life more difficult.”
And the fire continued to be stoked. Unsure of who exactly was the villain and who was the hero, Cassano and Capello would bestow the following public with massive reasons for confusion.
One could rationalize that their relationship was maintained by this habitual rite, but what led to the utter exclusion of Cassano in Madrid during the 2005-06 season initiated a period of distance between the coach and striker.
Left estranged, Cassano was delivered to Sampdoria. Bound in the air is still a yearning for an explanation for his isolation in Spain; though sifting through his memory, he finds clippings of his time with Madrid that illustrate a retroactive—and quite ironic—image.
In a strange twist of sensations worthy of being showcased on the Twilight Zone, there’s underlying compassion for his stern coach of yesterday.
“If it’s a fact that he pushed me out at Madrid and left me out of the team from time to time at Roma, he was true to me in that when I was playing well he picked me and he was almost always right...I’ve had a million problems with him, and he’s hard. But he’s fair. He’ll stand his ground and he’s usually right. That’s his strength.”
Now fighting for the blue jersey in Genoa, there has been an evident decrease in steam released on and off the pitch. Conversely, much of his efforts have been directed to goal and propelling Sampdoria into contention for a spot in Europe.
Since arriving in 2007, Cassano has become a supreme choice in the role of secondary striker. He has netted 22 goals in 57 Serie A matches, coincidentally forging a prolific tandem with leading forward Giampaolo Pazzini, and his team stands tied in first place atop the Italian league thus far this season.
Sampdoria president Riccardo Garrone voiced his glee in witnessing Cassano develop and channel his tenacity in a way not abundantly seen before.
"He is still a bit of a lively guy, so let's hope that by marrying he will become a good husband and good father,” said Garrone to sportmediaset.it. “On the pitch he has learnt to control himself and that is not easy, because he is massacred and I don't know how many fouls he suffered in Catania [last game]."
And it is that balance that has led to a campaign vying to see Cassano included in the Italy’s 2010 World Cup squad.
Current coach of the Azzurri, Marcello Lippi, has declined inviting Cassano to upcoming qualifiers against Georgia and Bulgaria. The media have contrived a see-saw battle over Lippi’s decision, which has subsequently pushed the 61-year-old into an unfavourable corner.
It isn’t so much about why Lippi won’t crumple his opinion of his current selection of players for Italy’s roster, but why Cassano represents such an alluring option for most around the game. Because in a matter of two years, Cassano evolved from an object of pillory and anguish to the Azzurri’s supposed knight in shining armour.
"Cassano? I have nothing against him, he is an excellent professional and a very good guy," Lippi said in a press statement. “I respect people's opinions and those who want him in the national team. But it would also be nice if my opinion was respected too.
"This argument doesn't bother me. This situation has happened to many coaches before me and it will continue to happen in future."
Reserving his judgement on this fiasco—one in which Cassano is, ironically, a direct bystander instead of the provocateur—the 27-year-old has been calm and temperate throughout the days of seeing his name juggled around.
“We have touched upon this many times, but Lippi is the coach, and he has to decide," Cassano told Sky Sport Italia. "I will always give my availability for selection, but I cannot hold a gun to his head."
No blood vessel is bursting on the scene here. It may happen on the seldom occasion—like last season’s tussle that involved him throwing a shirt at an official after being issued a red card—but he has accomplished as much as he has redeemed in the past two seasons.
If goals won’t indicate that, wholesale admiration has.
It’s true that no one has been working harder to advance the ticking of the clock as Cassano has. And now, certainly, he’s making it even more difficult to discount him or his ascent to relevancy.