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I’ve built-up quite a collection of football shirts over the years. I don’t know how many I have, but it must be close to thirty. My first was a red & blue Aberdeen shirt adorned with Northsound Radio sponsorship that my parents bought for me when I was in my first year of primary school. I got my first Newcastle United (the team I support thanks to my father) kit shortly after, and I’ve had countless more since then.

I didn’t delve into foreign shirts until I got a Spain shirt with Raul on the back during a family holiday to Menorca. Since then I’ve had the jerseys of Spain, Barcelona, Sparta Prague, Austria, Real Madrid, Roma, Juventus, Germany and a few more that I’ve probably forgotten about. A lot, basically.

The ones I don’t really wear are kept at my parents’ house and the rest are crammed haphazardly into a chest in my bedroom with my football boots and goalie gloves. I only use them when I’m playing football, in the gym or vegetating on the couch. I never wear them in public (unless it’s matchday), so they don’t need to be taken care of: I wear them, wash them then throw them in the chest.

Except one. I got it earlier this year, but I’ve only worn it a handful of times. It’s the only football shirt that I care about enough to hang in my wardrobe with my “going out” shirts and work clothes. It’s immaculate, completely spotless and fits me better than any football shirt I’ve ever owned.

It’s AC Milan’s third shit from last season with Cassano, 99 on the back. I don’t wear it often because I play football on artificial surfaces peppered with tiny black pellets that stain light-coloured material (this one is white). This is a precious jersey and I don’t want to get it dirty. Heck, I don’t even want to get it sweaty.

I’m sure you understand where I’m coming from if you’re a football fan. A friend recently compared the process of men choosing & buying football boots to women going dress shopping. We spend hours going back and forth, considering our options, getting excited and debating with our friends. We cherish the product when we get it, and when an imperfection inevitably appears we feel like somebody’s died. Such is the power of a special piece of kit to a football fan.

The reason I take such good care of this Milan top isn’t because it’s a beautiful piece of attire (which it is), but because it’s a Cassano shirt. Antonio Cassano is my favourite player. Alan Shearer was (and still is) an idol to me growing-up, but I’ve always loved Fantantonito. I’ve followed him since his Roma days and supported him everywhere he’s gone. I love the guy’s skills, character and approach to the beautiful game, so it saddens me deeply to hear of his ongoing health problems.

Cassano fell ill on Sunday night while flying back from Rome with his Rossoneri teammates. Said to be “having great difficulty speaking and moving,” Cassano was taken to hospital. I was worried, but details were sketchy. Nobody really seemed to know what was wrong the Fantantonito, and Milan were being understandably coy.

Rumours that Cassano suffered an ischemic stroke (caused by an interruption in the brain’s blood supply) surfaced and don’t seem to be going away. Milan have promised a “clarifying statement” on Cassano’s situation, but with rumours of potential heart surgery now circulating it certainly doesn’t sound great.

I don’t know the truth. I’m writing this before Milan have released their statement so I’ve got my fingers crossed that all this talk of strokes and heart surgery is just hearsay. Either way, it’s very troubling. Knowing that somebody you look up to is experiencing health problems is a horrible feeling. It’s obviously nowhere near as dreadful as a loved one’s suffering, but it’s jarring nonetheless.

Fantantonito first caught my eye at Roma in the early-2000’s. Playing under Fabio Capello, Cassano’s interactions with Francesco Totti & co. were breathtaking to watch (check the evidence), and I knew straightaway that I was watching a special player. He was the type of player who could change a game in an instant and his ability to control the ball in tight situations was astounding.

Cassano left Roma for Real Madrid in 2006 following a contract dispute. Such was the extent of his falling out with the Giallorossi hierarchy that his services cost Real a measly €5m, which is amazing considering Roma signed him from Bari for about €30m.

It’d be an understatement to say that Antonio had a wretched time in Spain. His Real spell was peppered with the kind of petulance that’s dogged him through his career, and he only managed a poxy four goals at the Bernabeu. After two years of conflict with Fabio Capello and Ramon Calderon, Cassano famously said he’d “walk all the way back” to rejoin Roma, and wound-up joining Sampdoria in 2007.

Thus began the most productive spell of Fantantonito’s career. Away from the spotlight of Real Madrid and the unique pressure of Roma, Cassano shone at Sampdoria. His growth (both as a player and a professional) was exponential, and the break-up of his lethal partnership with top goal-getter Giampaolo Pazzini was a huge factor in the Blucerchiati’s relegation last season.

Statistically, Cassano had never been better. He scored 41 goals and provided 38 assists in 115 Sampdoria appearances, which highlights his growth as a goalscorer and development as a playmaker. Accusations of laziness and selfishness had always been thrown at Antonio (especially after his grim spell at Real), but he really turned a corner with the ‘Doria.

Pazzini and Cassano: the perfect partnership?

Cassano played like a man with something to prove, and the discipline he learned at Sampdoria still serves him well today. Antonio left Sampdoria to link-up with Milan last winter and played a key role in the Rossoneri’s title run-in. This season he’s been as good as ever, with 9 goals and 7 assists in 19 games for club and country.

I don’t think anyone can argue that Cassano isn’t one of the most talented players in the world. His dribbling, close control and passing are genuinely world-class, and he’s a deceptively intelligent footballer who, at 29, has finally learned the value of teamwork. I think he’s one of the most naturally gifted players in the world, but he’s only just started to learn how to use his incredible gifts to full effect.

The name Antonio Cassano has sadly become synonymous with screw-ups and strops, so much so that the Capello-coined term “Cassanata” has emerged to describe “behaviour incompatible with team spirit”. He fell-out with Capello and Totti at Roma, everyone at Real Madrid and Riccardo Garrone at Sampdoria. Cassano’s behavioural and disciplinary meant he never really had a chance with the Azzurri under Marcello Lippi, but he has since become a regular fixture for Cesare Prandelli’s Italy.

Fantantonito seems to have finally turned a huge behavioural corner recently, and that’s what makes the timing of his illness so tragic. In the past five years he’s stepped his game up while becoming a hugely important player for club and country. Antonio is making the most of his “last chance at a big club,” and it’s rotten luck that he’s been struck with this affliction just as he’s coming into his own at Milan.

As good as Cassano is, he’s destined to go down as one of the biggest “what ifs” in football, even if he does make a full recovery. He was given a huge chance at Real Madrid and blew it, and his time in Rome ended acrimoniously despite his contribution over the years. Antonio had the potential and the talent to be an all-time European great, but his failure to apply himself in his mid-twenties has likely scuppered any chances of seeing Fantantonito at peak potential.

I think this quote sums things up perfectly: “I was poor my whole life, but I never worked, mainly because I don’t know how to do anything.” I believe that his work ethic has improved greatly in the past few years but it was undeniably poor when he was younger, and that’s why we’ll never see him at his very best. It’s all very well giving your all when you’re nearly 30, but footballers’ development slows considerably as they get older.

Fantantonito claims to have never given 100%. If Cassano has turned out this good without really trying then think just how good he could’ve been if he’d exerted himself more during his early years.

That’s not supposed to be a criticism though. I’m an Antonio Cassano fan not just because of his outstanding ability but also his personality. I don’t condone some of the things he did when he was younger, but Cassano is a maverick. If he doesn’t want to do something, he’s not going to do it. He loves food, women and making money, and he makes no secret of this.

It’s easy to criticise Antonio Cassano, but there’s much more to him than just petulance. A lot of people still look at him with disdain, but Cassano isn’t content to be a “yes man”: Fantantonito does what he pleases and lives on his own terms. Isn’t that what we all want from life?

It’s why I’ve always admired Cassano, and why I will continue to support him for the rest of his career. Hopefully this isn’t the last we’ve seen of him, but if it is, I thank him for the memories. He’s provided a ton of magical moments and memorable quotes over the years, and I’ll be very disappointed if he doesn’t get the opportunity to add to them.

Here’s to a true nonconformist and one of the most talented strikers I’ve ever seen. Guarisci presto, Fantantonito. Auguri di pronta guarigione.

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