It’s 11 July 1982, and Santiago Bernabeu is packed. 22 players run onto the pitch and this time that terrible Gary Lineker quote isn’t correct. This time Germans didn’t win.
After winnlees (but also lossless) group stage Italians beat Argentina and Brazil and progressed to the semifinals. There they won 2:0 against the best Polish team ever, and West Germany was their opponent in the final.
It’s 11 July 1982, and the whole Italy is buzzing. They waited for 44 years for this and now Breitner, Rummenige and Briegel won’t stop them. Paolo Rossi scored first. then Marco Tardelli doubled the lead. Substitute Alessandro Altobelli finished off the Germans with his goal, and when Breitner scored in 83rd minute, it meant nothing. For the third time in history, Italy is the World champion.
It’s 12 July 1982. Whole Italy is hangover, and although it’s Monday, nobody is at work. In the poor south of Italy the celebration is even more joyful, and in Bari footballing genius starts crying.
A day after Italy was crowned world champions, they got their future “fantasista”, their bad boy, their creative forward who could maybe bring them a thousand joyful moments.
It’s 12 July 1982, and at the coast of the Adriatic Sea, in Bari, Antonio Cassano is born.
It’s April 2020. Italy is in complete lockdown, there is nobody in the streets, and Serie A is suspended. People want football, so this is a perfect time for reminiscing memories and emotional confessions.
“I am the greatest talent to have thrown everything away in recent years because I really did throw myself away“, Cassano starts his story. He knows he could have been amongst the greatest.
“It’s one thing to change, another to not want to train, insult everyone, and start arguments from morning till night. The ‘wild genius who breaks the rules’ thing only goes so far, and I really did cross the line too many times. If I’d had another head on my shoulders, I could’ve been playing on Mars. I’d be like Lionel Messi, Neymar, and few others.”
And that’s not just some bragging from the worn-out football player who wants attention. In 2016 a journalist asked Francesco Totti who was his best teammate, and he said that was Cassano. Not Batistuta or Cafu. Not Del Piero, Nesta, or Maldini with whom he played in the national team. No, it was Antonio Cassano.
“I did not see Messi do the things that Antonio Cassano did. One day in training I saw him throw a cue stick. The ball was going to the side, it was running against, and with the stick, it threw the center. It was incredible. I explain to them today and I still have a hard time understanding how he did it. If he had been more professional he would have been one of the best in the world without any doubt ”, remembers Leandro Cufre, an Argentine defender who played with both of them – Lionel and Antonio.
But for someone better than Messi, his trophy case and history of playing for mediocre clubs in Italy is unorthodox. On the other hand, most of the kids with his background are either dead or in prison.
This is the story of the two sides of Antonio Cassano.
THE BRIGHT SIDE – St Nicholas blessing for a fantastista
To understand Antonio Cassano, you must understand Italy, with its regional divides and differences. People we call “Italians” are very different. They speak a very different language, they live in different places with different cultures and different living conditions.
Bari is the capital city of Apulia, one of the poorest Italian regions. And Cassano was born in one of the poorest parts of the city. Soon after he was born, his father simply left. His mother had to work two jobs and to try and raise her kids. They were living in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Italy, and criminal was all over the place.
But young Antonio didn’t care about that. He found a different way to get the money he needed. Antonio would play street football and would bet on himself against older boys. His street football skills were too good to go unnoticed, and one day a scout of the local team spotted him. He rarely attended school and had trouble with the law, and those early years helped to shape his volatile character on and off the field.
Bari had a brand new stadium built for ’90 World Cup, and the team was bouncing between Serie A and Serie B. One Champions League final had been played there, but the best football at Stadio San Nicola was yet to come.
In 1999 Bari was entering its third straight season in the top flight, and they had an impressive young core of players. Simone Perrotta, Matteo Ferrari, and Daniel Andersson were all in the starting lineup, and there were some kids waiting for their chance. Antonio Cassano debuted when he came off the bench against local rivals Lecce, but his moment of brilliance came when Bari was in trouble.
Inter was coming to town, and both of the team’s strikers were injured so two young guns had to jump in. Angelo Peruzzi had Panucci, Blanc, Cordoba, and Zanetti in front of him, and expected to have a boring day at the office. But after 18-year-old Nigerian Hugo Enyinnaya lobbed Peruzzi from 25 meters for the first goal, Inter was shaken. Christian Vieri made it 1:1, and then Italy witnessed the first act of Antonio Cassano’s genius.
It was in the 89th minute of the game. Everyone expected the game to end in a draw, but 17-year-old Cassano thought differently. Midfielder in the red and white kit sent a long ball to the left side, and Cassano grabbed hold off it some 40 or 50 meters from the goal. He controlled it with his heel and pushed it forward with a slight nod of the head. Christian Panucci and Laurent Blanc rushed towards the goal and tried to stop him. It was none of his business, he just didn’t care. He weaved between them, and two world-class defenders nearly collided. He didn’t even look towards the goal, he shot the ball and it went below Peruzzi. The stadium exploded like never before. Cassano run towards the Bari fans who rushed towards the fence to touch their hero, to feel the next genius of Italian football.
That first touch was something never seen before. After the game even the great Marcello Lippi had to conffess that.
“That goal is not normal. We must appreciate it”, he said after the game.
And years after this game, Fantatonio, as he was called later, knows that this was the moment that shaped his entire life.
“The most beautiful goal I scored was on December 18th, 1999 for Bari against Inter, I can’t forget it. It changed my life in everything, even my wallet. I’ve become handsome too. If it wasn’t for that game against Inter I would have become a thief or worse; either way, a delinquent. A lot of people that I know have become involved in that life. That game my talent shone, and it took me away from a future of potential shit.”
Press called him Il Gioiello di Bari Vecchia (The Jewel of Old Bari) after the game, and he was firmly established in the first team. The following season he played 27 times, scored three times and assisted twice, but Bari was dead last in the Serie A, and they were relegated.
Cassano was 19-years old and he became the most expensive teenager in the world of football when Fabio Cappello came knocking. Roma paid 60 million lire (€30 million) for him and after a season in which Batistuta and Totti won the title, Roma brought the most talented kid in the world of football to Stadio Olimpico.
In just two years he went from escaping crime to escaping thousands of fans who wanted his autograph or a photo. It went off the rails for him. He was a different breed of forward, and everybody liked to see him play. From the start, everybody knew that Cassano wouldn’t provide you with 20 goals, but his flair was a thing of beauty. Antonio Cassano was the author of a million amazing moments and was named the best young player of Serie A in his first two seasons in Rome.
He played alongside Francesco Totti, and for many, he was the new Totti. In 2003/04 season they were unstoppable and scored 34 league goals combined, mostly assisted by each other.
He was quick, two-footed, and intelligent. But he was just a boy, and everyone just wanted to see him grow up.
It didn’t happen.
THE DARK SIDE – Sex, sweets and fights
Fantantonio was a joy to watch but wasn’t a joy to coach. Fabio Capello experienced it on two occasions. While he featured regularly and played better throughout his first 3 years in Rome, the story behind the scenes was a story of “tough love” between him and Fabio Capello.
Capello would chase Cassano around the training ground, demanding to know why he didn’t run as quickly during matches. Roma was defeated in Coppa Italia final by Milan 4:1, and it was mostly because of Cassano’s sending off. It didn’t stop there – he flashed the horns at the referee after being sent off, and got suspended. Even Cappello couldn’t hold his nerves with Fantantonio and allegedly told him repeatedly to “fuck off“.
When new coach, Luciano Spalleti came to town, Cassano greeted him in his own way.
“You’re not coaching those useless players you had at Udinese. This isn’t your house, it’s my house.”
He managed to get in the fight with Totti over a television show. They have been in a show hosted by Maria De Filippi, and Totti got 80% of the appearance fee. Cassano didn’t want to be a second-fiddle anymore, so he decided to put himself in front of the Prince of Rome.
After he insulted Spalleti, he asked for a bigger contract then Totti, and the club was having none of it. So he played only 5 games in the first half of the season, and because he had only 6 months left on his contract Roma decided to ship him anywhere.
Fabio Capello came calling, and he brought him to Real Madrid. But he soon regretted it and created the term Cassanata to describe behavior that disrupted the team unit.
He was a disaster in Madrid. He scored three minutes into his debut, and then in the most Cassano way managed to blow everything up. Real Madrid was playing Gimnastic, and Capello told him and Ronaldo to worm up. They did for a whole second half, but he didn’t put them in. Ronaldo was ok with that. Fantantonio wasn’t.
“In the locker room I told him ‘You’re a piece of shit, you’re more fake than Monopoly money‘”.
Just months after signing with the club he was banished and made to train with David Beckham, who was in isolation because of the clash with the coach, too. Capello was obviously a huge fan of Antonio’s genius, so he brought him back to the team. Two months later, Cassano did an impersonation of Capello behind his back. The team was visiting Espanyol, and cameras caught this moment. Ronaldo, Fabio Cannavaro, and Mahamadou Diarra who were on the bench liked the show, but militaristic Capello has had enough of this. Cassano didn’t play a game for three months, and his time in Madrid was done.
He signed a lucrative 6-year contract, but he stayed there for just 18 months. Soon enough, fans nicknamed him ‘Gordito’ due to his visible weight gain, for which Madrid fined him regularly. Every Friday he returned to Rome with a private jet, and his autobiography reveals just how sloppy he lived in Spain,
“I made friends with one of the waiters. His job was to bring me three or four cornetti after I had sex. He would bring the cornetti to the stairs, I would bring the girl and we would make a trade: he took the girl; I stuffed myself with cornetti. Sex plus food — the perfect night!”
Fabio Capello once said:
“Anarchy is always around the corner with Cassano.”
And this is the perfect example of it. He was the second Italian to play for Real Madrid after Christian Panucci, the man against whom his career started. Raul once said that he has never seen such talent, and in his 18 years in Real, he has seen quite a few great players.
“I played in some of the strongest sides in the world, I can’t say that I wasn’t happy or lucky. I even knew that if I screwed up I’d get another chance somewhere else. Like Totti said a while ago, I only did 50 percent of what I was capable of doing. I was a disaster area sometimes and I hated training. If I had done what I should have done over the course of 15 years, I would have been like Messi”, said Cassano afterward, and he confessed that he regretted for not staying in Roma.
“If I had listened to Francesco, I probably would have stayed with him at Roma for 10, 15 years.”
Disillusioned with life in Spain, Cassano claimed that he would “walk all the way back” to play for Roma again. At Stadio Olimpico, nobody wanted him no more.
THE BRIGHT SIDE – Flashes of brilliance in Azzuri shirt
For his country, he always showed up. The debut came in 2003, against Poland, where he immediately scored first of his 10 international goals. That helped him get into the team for Euro 2004, packed with striking brilliance.
Del Piero, Vieri, and Totti were first names on the list, and Mauro Camoranesi was a little further back on the right-wing. Cassano, Di Vaio, and Corradi were backups, and nobody thought they would play much. But when Giovanni Trapattoni was left without Francesco Totti, someone had to jump in.
Totti lost his temper, and spat Christian Poulsen in the opening match, then got 3 match ban. His tournament was over, and Cassano jumped right in. In remaining two matches he scored once against Sweden, and once against Bulgaria, where he was a man of the match. Unfortunately, in Euro that brought many wonders, one of these was Italy’s dropping out in the group stages, even though they didn’t lose a single game. In the end, Cassano’s 94th-minute winner against Bulgaria didn’t mean a thing.
THE DARK SIDE – Wrong place, wrong time, like always
When it was expected that Fantantonio is set to become one of the most important men in the Azzuri side, he once again blew it all. And the timing was just terrible.
He didn’t play in Madrid and his relationship with Marcello Lippi wasn’t so good. So Italy went to the 2006 World Cup without its only player that played for Real Madrid. Players like Vicenzo Iaquinta and Simone Barone went on to win a fourth World Cup for Italy. For a boy born just a day after third Italy’s triumph, it just wasn’t meant to be.
Like always in his career, when big things supposed to come up, he blew it all. Materazzi went on to become the most famous head-butted man in the universe, and his best ever partner Franceso Totti went on to win the most important trophy in football, with Simone Perotta, Antonio’s teammate from Bari and Roma, by his left side.
THE DARK SIDE AND THE BRIGHT SIDE – Silver flashes of brilliance, near-death experience and the end of the journey
After the nightmare of 18 months in Spain, and missing out on World Cup glory, he returned to Italy. Sampdoria decided to take a gamble with problematic but fiery genius. It was worthwhile, and they finished fourth on the wings of their new creative power. Next season Cassano flourished with 12 goals and 15 assists. He even found his safe port and got engaged to a water polo player Carolina Marcialis in 2008, ending his lover’s career, which, by his own count, consisted of 600 women he slept with.
All seemed right, but in the most Cassano act possible he fell out with management because he didn’t want to attend the club’s award ceremony. In a confusing act where club first wanted to sack him then shipped him to Milan, he was in one of the biggest clubs in the world all of a sudden.
Ronaldinho just left the club, and the club wanted someone with a creative spark to slot behind Zlatan Ibrahimović and Alexandre Pato. Not only he didn’t play much, but his lavish lifestyle caught up with him. After playing against Roma in November 2011, he suffered a stroke and was hospitalized. At first, his life was under threat, but somehow he managed to get back on the court in 6 months.
“If I am honest I was afraid of dying, in particular during those days before the operation. The important thing is that I got through it and that everyone, from Real Madrid to Barcelona, from Mourinho to Delneri and even Iniesta phoned me. I know I have the power and the will to return to the pitch”, he said afterward.
He returned to action in April 2012 and scored in his first match back. Another big tournament was coming up, and nobody expected Cassano in the team now. Not only Cesare Prandelli put him in the team, but he was wearing a number 10 and was a main attacking force.
The duo of the Italian bad boys fostered kids who rose from poverty but never shook off their problematic attitudes understood each other perfectly. That June flammable mix of Cassano and Balotelli exploded in just the right manner.
In the third and most important match of the group phase, Cassano first scored a goal and then assisted for Balotelli. Italy won 2:0 against Ireland and progressed through.
In semifinals, Cassano had his masterclass. Chiellini passed him the ball on the left side, he then turned around Matts Hummels and perfectly crossed the ball onto Ballotelli’s head, and Italy took the lead. Later Super Mario scored once more, and Italy with Cassano as the leader went to the final.
Spain was too strong for them there and thrashed them 4:0, but once again whole world expected that Cassano’s genius was unleashed. His shine wasn’t a gold one, like it should have been, but a silver one was perfectly ok.
Milan was having trouble with finance, and Silvio Berlusconi dismantled the team, so Cassano wanted out. In the end, he was left in Milano, but now he was playing for Inter. In one of his most productive seasons he got 9 goals and 15 assists, but once again ruined it all for himself.
Andrea Stramaccioni was the coach, and Cassano was one of the best players, but Fantantonio clashed with him so often, that at the end of the season they got into a physical fight.
From there he went to Parma and had one great season. He was fit, lost 10 kilograms by simply reducing his pastry binges to once a week. But then he had one terrible season and in 2015 he tried to return to Sampdoria and find a missing spark, only to play poor 25 games with just 2 goals scored.
He was finished as a player, but his show wasn’t over. In July 2017. 34-year-old Cassano made all headlines in Italy. After one season of pause, he signed for Hellas Verona, a team that reinvigorated quite a few fading player careers in those years. But after just two weeks, he retired again!
“It’s like when you’re seeing a woman and she no longer attracts you, so you leave,” he explained with a smile on his face. Two years from there, he again announced he was back in football, training with Serie C side. Only to retire once again, a few days later.
“Over the last few days of training, I realized that I no longer have the mentality to train consistently,” he said. “In order to play football, you need passion and talent but above all determination, and at this moment I have other priorities.”
What could have been the Fenomeno of Fantantonio?
Gianluigi Buffon once said:
“Not even Cassano knows the value he brings to this team on the pitch and in the dressing-room.“
What could have been if he had learned to control his temper? If he had found his calmness and composure? We will never know. Football world loved to watch Casanno play and was intrigued by his off-court antics.
But, as one renewed sports psychologists said, mental preparation is the key to success in football. Imagine if young Antonio had all support he needed when he was 15 or 16, he would maybe reach the heights of Totti, Del Piero, Vieri, or Baggio. He would surely been a part of the 2006 World Cup-winning team, and he would make a bigger mark in Roma, Real Madrid, and in Italian football.
Now, there is a way to do that. To help some kid find his peace, and solely work on his football. To help him reach out and moderate his temper. It’s called Fenomeno, you should read more about it.
Because, with this, the new Fantantonio’s could reach the heights they are supposed to.