The Maradona of Bari, Part II

The rise, the fall, the return, the fall, the return, the fall, and the return of Antonio Cassano.

II: The Boy Who Refused to Grow Up

Most profiles of Cassano note that his story begins in the humble trappings of a poor family living in the old parts of Bari. On the eve of his birth (July 12, 1982), the fishermen of his hometown huddled around televisions and radios in cafes and restaurants, with expectant, bleary eyes. The rainclouds that would end Italy’s 44-year World Cup drought hung on the horizon. The Azzuri, led by Paolo Rossi and Bruno Conti, were 2-0 up against West Germany. In the 81st minute, Alessandro Altobelli capped off a quick counter attack on their tired, pressing opponents, prompting the Italian president to boast, wagging a finger at the cameras. Ten minutes and a West German consolation goal later, Italy took to the streets to celebrate their three goals to one victory. While most profiles of Cassano begin with this anecdote and finish the image with Italians cheering while their new Messiah is born in a shack down the street, an important fact is almost always neglected: Cassano was born into a nearly joyless world.

Stalking out amidst the shell-colored, broken walls of a 2000-year old city, Cassano’s father left his mother, forcing her to support her child by cleaning houses and selling sweets door-to-door. Cassano would say later that his mother fed him the food off her own plate to keep him nourished. To overcome these hardships (or to escape them), Cassano raced out onto the dusty pathways of Old Bari at a young age, learning and preternaturally perfecting tricks and twists, weaving in and out of squat automobiles. He frequently skipped school to caterwaul in the streets (like Ronaldo and many other greats before him), scattering a good education in the pursuit of the pleasures of competitive football (not his last epicurean pursuit). Authority–teachers and headmasters included–was and has always been a necessary evil for Cassano. On the basis of which it is tempting to slip into (and many have) a Freudian explanation, synthesizing the events of his life in an attempt to explain his action. To say, for instance, that the lack of a firm male figure to restrain and establish reasonable limits on his life has fostered his extreme selfishness, the temper tantrums, and hedonism.

“Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised,” wrote Paolo Bandini, the Serie A columnist for the Guardian, after a typical tantrum in 2006. “Many a pop-psychologist has attributed his difficulty with managers and referees and even the police – over his repeated arrests for driving a motorbike without a licence – to his lingering resentment towards his father, and hence any male authority figure. Certainly he is imbued with a natural aggression…” This theory lingers like a muggy haze over most of Cassano’s career. Why can’t he get it right? Where does he get his motivation, if any exists? Cassano’s problem is hardly one that is unique. The comparisons to stereotypically selfish players with off-the-field problems across sports culture are manifold, from wide receivers Randy Moss and Terrell Owens in the National Football League to Allen Iverson and Ron Artest in the NBA and John Terry and Paul Gascoine (with whom he’s drawn many comparisons) in soccer. Rather than rely on Freudian psychoanalysis, Cassano could rather be viewed as another in a long line of players raised in and among rough circumstances, who, confronted suddenly by immense riches, impulsively and irresponsibly embrace the excesses of their newfound life. Many of these athletes used their talent as a means to remove themselves from a potential life of poverty, if not crime.

The list of players raised in less-than-ideal milieus and who, without the proper guidance and education, spent themselves back into squalor is long (Mike Tyson and NBAer Antoine Walker to name two). There is little indication Cassano is heading down that path–yet he acknowledges the complicated impact of the rags-to-riches story. From his memoir Dico Tutto (I’ll Tell Everything) published in 2008: “I spent the first 17 years of my life dirt-poor. Then I spent nine years living the life of a millionaire. That means I need another eight years living the way I do now and then I’ll be even.” Plucked from the streets at a young age and heralded within a few years as the next Roberto Baggio, it’s easy to see where a couple of developmental cogs could be missing. Part of maturing is learning the hard way (through lack of money, strength, or courage) that you cannot have everything you set your eyes on. Cassano’s impressive red mist, his impulsive binging on junk food, his disrespect for authority sketches a narrative of a fragmented youth where everything, after his genius was established, came easy. Up against the impassable ceilings of adulthood and celebrity, a boy who does not seem to want to grow up, his actions often seem like a fly repeatedly crashing against a glass window.

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Coming up next: Part Three, The Boy Who Was a Rough Kid from the Streets

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