x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Antonio Cassano faces biggest fight of his life

Antonio Cassano's character will be pushed to its fullest in the coming weeks as he prepares for heart surgery.

Antonio Cassano's career is in question after he fell ill following AC Milan's victory over Roma on Saturday. Luca Bruno / AP Photo
Antonio Cassano's career is in question after he fell ill following AC Milan's victory over Roma on Saturday. Luca Bruno / AP Photo

Just three weeks ago, AC Milan's Antonio Cassano was in a cheerful mood while addressing reporters who follow the Italian national team. He talked about his likely career span as a footballer.

Now 29, he said he wanted four more years at the top and then to retire and spend more time with his family. He joked how the press need not miss his colourful, sometimes controversial, character because they would still have Mario Balotelli.

"I was born a clown," Cassano smiled at the time. What now seems likely is that he may have to reconsider seriously his projected career span. He suffered sudden and alarming loss of physical control while with Milan teammates flying back from the victory at Roma on Saturday night.

Yesterday it was confirmed he has suffered a cerebral problem related to an ischaemic stroke. He is due to undergo an operation to close a small hole in his heart.

While the condition is not a particularly rare one and usually caused little to no affects in the sufferer, he is expected to be out for several months.

Visitors to his bedside at Milan's Policlinico hospital were yesterday reporting him as smiling and, in the case of his former Sampdoria colleague Giampaolo Pazzini, saying: "He seemed much better than I had expected."

Outside the hospital, fans have unfurled a banner, saying "Antonio, Don't Give Up" and from across Serie A there had been heartfelt messages of support.

His teammate Kevin-Prince Boateng wore Cassano's 99 jersey underneath his own shirt during Tuesday's 1-1 draw at BATE Borisovin the Champions League.

Cassano is popular in dressing rooms - although he has, as he would acknowledge, been unpopular at times in his rebellious career with coaches and presidents - because he is outgoing, humorous and an enthusiastic mimic.

He has also been playing extremely well lately. In his last two starts for Milan, he set up four goals. For Italy, meanwhile, he has answered with distinction the head coach Cesare Prandelli's daring call for him to assume a senior role in the national team.

Images of his wife, Carolina Marcialis, with whom Cassano has a six-month-old son, in tears remind that his sudden illness, caused by an anomaly of the heart in which a small hole develops, has implications far behind his sporting career.

Ever since Cassano emerged as probably the most inventive Italian footballer of his generation, it was easy to assume that what might prevent him reaching his full potential would be his wayward, reckless streak.He has progressed in taming that. It now looks like he has another battle to fight.