A late Sunday morning in mid-February 2008. I’d just arrived at Genoa Brignola station, where I‘d agreed to meet up with some bloke I’d met on the internet for the handover of the match briefs. After six months in Italy in possession of a Sky Calcio package for me and my flatmates to while our way through the winter’s brisk Sunday afternoons in Turin, my longing to take in Mazzari’s blucerchiati at close quarters had reached tantric levels. On this occasion, Sampdoria would be the away team in their own stadium at Marassi, as they faced Gian Piero Gasperini’s well-drilled Genoa side in the Derby della Lanterna.
The main object of my affection was, of course, Antonio Cassano, who had joined Sampdoria on loan from Real Madrid at the beginning of the season and had immediately set about righting the wrongs that had plagued him in his time in the Spanish capital. The side he’d parachuted into was more industrious than it was artistic and the rascal in the number 99 shirt (a trend spearheaded by Ronaldo at Milan a short time before) had been tasked with replacing Fabio Quagliarella as the creative spark that would feed a workhorse in the shape of either Claudio Bellucci, Emiliano Bonazzoli, Andrea Caracciolo or Vincenzo Montella. Alongside Cassano, the spine of the Walter Mazzari side would be formed by former Siena stalwart Daniele Gastaldello, vein-bulging captain Angelo Palombo and the wing-back pairing of Reto Ziegler and Christian Maggio.
After a Moretti or two behind the stadium in a bar frequented by a sparse smattering of ultras decked in blue, white and red garb (where, much to my disappointment, the pre-match chat was centred on the hooligan culture of my match companion’s West Ham rather than any talk of the upcoming spectacle), we filed into the south end of the Distinti along the sideline, which housed the less fervent elements of Sampdoria’s support. From a narrative perspective, there were few moments of note in the match and even the final score escapes me (that it was low-scoring is beyond doubt), and yet I can still feel my neck straining as I recall myself standing, peering down the left-hand touchline in anticipation of what trick Antonio Cassano would pull out the hat next to beat another onrushing defender. For the duration of the 90 minutes, he seemed to have the ball on the tip of his right toe throughout, as he teased the opposing full-back within an inch of his career, before repeatedly slipping neat passes in behind him, dragging him into no-man’s land or simply turning him inside-out.
This was the Fantantonio that I had paid to see, and this was the Fantantonio that I (and the world) was always meant to see.
Putting the fantasy in fantasista
In the UK, Cassano’s talents have never registered on the Richter scale. Mention of his name to even the most knowledgeable British football fan tends to draw a shrug or allusions to his early-hour pastry-for-overnight companion transactions and to his homophobic slurs.
In Italy, however, a legend has surrounded El Pibe de Bari ever since he burst onto the scene with a goal for his hometown team against his beloved Inter in 1999. The nickname mimicked Maradona (El Pibe de Oro – or The Golden Boy), but the frenzied media and tifosi on the Italian peninsula would soon paint him as the Southern-born heir to one Roberto Baggio, who happened to be wearing the blue and black shirt of Inter on that same day in 1999. A fair responsibility to place on a young kid’s shoulders? Perhaps not, but an understandable one – particularly after Baggio stepped out of the public glare a few months later to join provincial club Brescia. The nation’s other great footballing hopes, Alessandro Del Piero and Francesco Totti, had matured into very clever and prolific playmakers, but they were no longer the unpredictable prodigies that could turn a drab 0-0 draw into a crowd-pleasing classic with a few flicks of his yellow-flashed Diadoras.
And yet in hindsight, if we isolate the player from the manic saviour-seeking environment of turn-of-the-century Italian football, it is self-evident that Cassano was no Roberto Baggio. Nor is it fair to paint him as an “unaccomplished” Ronaldinho, Neymar or Dennis Bergkamp, as the consensus among the press in Italy would have it. As if he were some kind of Ravel Morrison or Garry O’Connor who wasted away his God-given talent and had nothing to show for it.
If truth be told, Antonio Cassano was never that type of macro-footballer in the mould of the world greats cited above. Whereas Baggio or Ronaldinho would look up and see ahead of time how the pitch was about to open up in front of them, Cassano worked in micro format, peeling out to the left-hand side to making things happen, either through individual brilliance or by playing off a teammate working in one a space around him. A facilitator whose greatest trait was his partnership play and his ability to create space for the forward that was playing alongside him, the most often cited benefactors of which were Totti, Pazzini and Ibrahimovic, but which also included Amauri, Fredy Guarin and Yksel Osmanovski. Like Davor Suker to Goran Vlaovic; Cuauhtemoc Blanco to Luis “Matador” Hernandez; or (to hell with it) Craig Brewster to Garry O’Connor.
In retirement, Cassano himself often claims that he could have been “as good as Messi”, seeming to concede that he never turned his World Class Talent into being a World Class Player. But the club shirts he wore might suggest otherwise. Aside from Bari and Sampdoria, he passed through Roma, Real Madrid, Milan and Inter. Sure, his move to Real Madrid as a 23 year old may have transpired due to his potential rather than the player he had proven himself to be, but similar accusations cannot be levelled regarding his move to Milan in 2011 and to Inter a year later.
Even on the international stage, his partnership with Mario Balotelli at Euro 2012 excited the Italian nation in a way that had not happened since Baggio and Vieri at France ’98 (even the World Cup winning tandem of Francesco Totti and Luca Toni had not spawned such enthusiasm). After a decade in which he had become famous for his temper tantrums both on and off the pitch – the word Cassanata entered the Italian dictionary in 2008 to refer to his signature shows of petulance – he was all of a sudden thrust into a role of responsibility, charged with setting a good example for Balotelli, another striker known for throwing his toys out of his pram. His on-pitch influence was exemplary in this respect. Less so in the press room, where he was rightly scolded the world over for his pejorative comments made regarding homosexuals in football.
Addio and riaddio
Following a two-year Indian summer at Parma – which Cassano refers to as perhaps his finest spell as a footballer, an opinion borne out by his 12 goals and 8 assists in his first season – and a return to Sampdoria in which he was unable to rekindle former glories, Fantantonio’s career reached its conclusion in the most fitting of manners. Within the next two and a half years, a 34-year-old Cassano fell out with Sampdoria chairman Massimo Ferrero, refused to leave and spent the autumn training with the youth team, terminated his contract that Winter, spent six months training on his own, joined Verona, retired, unretired, retired again, terminated his contract with Verona, took 18 months out in which he was supposedly open to offers provided they were within commuting distance of his home in Liguria, applied to join Serie A’s programme for aspiring Sporting Directors, withdrew his application, joined local side Virtus Entella on trial (who at the time were in administrative purgatory between Serie B and Serie C), left Virtus after a week, then definitively retired.
On the surface then, Antonio Cassano’s career seems to have ended with a string of cassanate and misguided actions by which many claim it was plagued. In reality, though, Cassano’s undisputed love for football during those months (albeit not for the hard work that goes with it) was exceeded by one thing alone: his dedication to his family, who he credits – understandably, given his career trajectory prior to his renaissance at Sampdoria – with saving him from personal and professional self-destruction. Unbecoming of the chauvinist persona he often displayed in public, the Kid from Bari placed the interests of his wife – a professional water polo player in their hometown in Liguria – and children before those of his own ego and finances. He repeatedly dismissed any talk of following in the footsteps of Alessandro Del Piero and Fabio Cannavaro by accepting one last payday in the USA, the Middle East or even Ibiza (where he would have joined everyone’s not-so-secret man-crush Marco Borriello). Nor was he content to be relegated to the doldrums of the lower tiers of Italian football, knowing that he would not get the enjoyment from it that he so demanded.
Here’s to you, then, Fantantonio, to your multi-club legend, to your unbridled passion – warts and all –, to your dignity – forever imperiled but always maintained – and to your incarnation of what I conceive fantasy to mean.
And here’s to me, to having the opportunity to bear witness to an inimitable football genius in the prime of his days: a player whose legend may not pass down to subsequent generations – woe betide us – outside of Bari and Genoa, but whose operatic (and often pantomime) air meant there was little point or meaning in looking up to the scoreboard at Marassi on that Winter afternoon in 2008.