x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Euro 2012: Antonio Cassano gets into his stride

The Italy forward has put indiscipline, episodes of recklessness and a heart ailment behind him, writes Ian Hawkey.

Antonio Cassano, the Italian forward, has seen so much in life. Yet the gifted but eccentric AC Milan player seems to have taken a long time to mature as a player and person. Giuseppe Cacace / AFP
Antonio Cassano, the Italian forward, has seen so much in life. Yet the gifted but eccentric AC Milan player seems to have taken a long time to mature as a player and person. Giuseppe Cacace / AFP

Antonio Cassano celebrates his 30th birthday on July 12. He will expect the day's Italian newspapers not to anticipate the event too heavily, because they will have devoted the previous day's editions to a more important anniversary.

When Cassano was born, in 1982, in a poor, rundown district of the southern city of Bari, Italy was in a very good mood. The national team had just won their third World Cup. Cassano likes to joke that the doctors and midwives who attended to him and his mother were distracted by the celebrations.

Life was tough for both of them in the years that followed. Antonio saw little of his father, and saw plenty of his contemporaries get into trouble on the mean streets of the district where he grew up.

But by his teens Italian football anticipated that this brilliant, diminutive aspiring sportsman might have the capacity to do what Paolo Rossi, the hero of the '82 World Cup, had done for his country, and lead them to the ultimate triumph in the sport.

Italy won a fourth World Cup a few days before Cassano's 24th birthday, an age when he might have been expected to be peaking as a professional. He had emerged as one of the brighter aspects of a disappointing Euro 2004 side for the Azzurri but, by the time of the 2006 World Cup, he was not in the squad. Marcello Lippi, then Italy's coach, distrusted him and found no compelling reason to revise his opinion of a wayward individual by the time of the 2010 campaign, either.

Much has happened to Cassano since then. On a flight back from an away match at Roma with his club AC Milan last October, Cassano suffered a sudden and alarming loss of physical control, spasms caused by a problem in his circulation. Rushed to hospital, it emerged he had suffered a form of mini-stroke. He required heart surgery to correct the fault.

Cassano was then warned of the high chance he might never play football at a high level again. That caused him, he has since said, to reflect on the petty jeopardies he had put on his career in the decade before his health crisis. The reasons Lippi had consistently turned his back on Cassano were well known and understood by many coaches.

Fabio Capello, who had worked with Cassano at Roma, the club he joined as a prodigy from Bari, invented a word for Cassano's many episodes of recklessness: He called them "Cassanatas", and they became part of Italian football's vocabulary.

Several times, at Roma, a Cassanata meant storming out of practice; it meant being red-carded in a Cup final and responding by making an abusive gesture at the referee.

He fell out with a series of Roma managers and moved to Real Madrid. There, indiscipline became far more of a trademark than goals or assists. There were flashes of talent but there was also a conspicuous lack of professional standards. Cassano put on weight and Madrid officials had to caution the staff in the hotel he was staying in to limit his use of room service.

In his autobiography, a self-deprecating account of his rows and Cassanatas, the player admits to the reckless irresponsibility of his time in Spain. His teammates may have disapproved of his habits, but many quite liked him. Cassano is charming, funny, an entertaining mimic.

He also was gifted, as he was able to show more consistently when Madrid loaned him to Sampdoria, and his clever football, playing just off a spearhead striker, helped the Genoese club to soar. Then a familiar pattern resumed: Cassano had a public row with the Sampdoria president.

But there was a way forward; Milan recruited him. He won a Serie A title with them in 2011 and became an important figure for the new national coach, Cesare Prandelli.

Cassano played his first match, post-surgery, only in April. At Euro 2012, he has shown signs of fatigue late in games, but he has also been inventive, confident and threatening up front for the semi-finalists.

"He is a great player to have, even if it's just for 50 minutes," Prandelli said ahead of tonight's collision with Germany. "You have to remember he's had months of inactivity."

And months to think seriously about life, and to grow up.


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