Few players divide opinion as much as the Italian Antonio Cassano. With his (third) retirement now confirmed, there’s never been a better time to look at the enigmatic rabble-rouser.
Fabio Capello, one of Cassano’s many managers, once said: “Anarchy is always around the corner with Cassano.” The Italian boss managed Cassano at both Roma and Real Madrid and would have several public spats with the player over the course of their relationship.
Jewel of Old Bari
Antonio Cassano was born into poverty in Bari, the day after Italy won the World Cup in 1982. His father abandoned the family when his son was just a baby. Street football kept the youngster away from a life of crime yet honed his burgeoning skills. He was spotted and subsequently recruited by a scout from Bari and forced his way into the first team at just 17. One week after his debut he scored a sublime individual goal against Inter Milan.
Fans immediately named him ‘Jewel of Old Bari’. But they also knew that a club of Bari’s stature would find it difficult to hold on to this prodigy and, as such, in 2001 he moved to Roma for £26 million, becoming the most expensive teenage footballer in history. Here he thrived and twice won the Serie A Young Footballer of the Year award.
Capello grew frustrated at his player’s attitude and their relationship would decay. Things were no better with incoming manager Luciano Spalletti as the pair fell out spectacularly when the fiery forward demanded a new contract. This resulted in the player leaving for just £4 million weeks before his contract would run out, meaning the club lost a key player and a change of receiving some much-needed money. Sadly, he and Francesco Totti combined beautifully. Totti went on to name Cassano his ‘best ever teammate.’
Women and pastries
Away from the game, the young Italian had two main vices: women and pastries. Before his marriage to water polo player Caroline Marcialis in 2008, he claimed to have slept with more than 600 women. Unfortunately, the pastries followed the bouts of extra-curricular activities, not a good mix for a sportsman. Famously, Real Madrid fined him for every gram over what they deemed to be a normal weight.
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A separate health scare whilst playing for AC Milan (ironically against Roma) saw him suffer a stroke and underwent surgery to correct a heart defect which cost him half a season without playing. For anyone else, this would have been considered a warning against his life of excesses. However, Cassano was never one to take much heed of warnings.
Capello and Cassano were reunited at the Bernabeu; however, with increased offensive options, the Italian bad boy was regularly named on the bench. He grew more frustrated with his limited game time and it was a common sight to see him shout and swear at his manager; on one occasion he was even caught on camera impersonating his manager, much to the amusement of Ronaldo and Cannavaro.
With the strained relationship at boiling point, something had to give. He left to join Sampdoria (initially on loan) and then onto Parma after an altercation with Sampdoria’s president, Riccardo Garrone. At Parma, his verbal tantrums escalated and he threw his shirt at a referee after getting sent off.
Cassano seemed to revel in being the big fish in a small pond and nowhere was this more evident than at Parma. His first season saw him lose 10 kilograms as he attempted to prove his fitness. Although he later admitted that he’d simply reduced his bread binges to once a week.
His form for Sampdoria earned him a call-up for the 2014 World Cup squad. Though no one was shocked to see that his international career was just as turbulent. Just two years earlier, at Euro 2012, he was quoted as saying that he ‘hoped’ the national team contained no gay men! He was of course forced to apologise but the damage had already been done.
Controversy seemed to follow Cassano like a shadow and in inimitable style, his retirement was controversial. Just eight days after signing for new club Hellas Verona, he suddenly announced that he was retiring from football because of homesickness and ‘other troubles.’ Later the same day, he reversed his decision citing ‘tiredness’ in a ‘moment of weakness’ and vowed to play for Verona as agreed.
Six days later, he once again changed his mind and retired with immediate effect.
In typically eccentric fashion, Cassano came out of retirement in August 2018 to join Serie C side Virtus Entella, albeit for just one week before announcing (for the third time) that he was indeed to retire from the game.
Cassano is not the first gifted footballer to suffer from the excesses and decadence of fame, but it doesn’t make it any less sad that that words ‘what could have been’ will haunt him forever.