The Maradona of Bari, Part III

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

Cassano at AC Milan

III: The Boy Who Was a Rough Kid from the Streets

There is an anecdote which describes adequately Cassano’s troubled relationship with Bari and the environs of his youth. While back from his new footballing home in Rome, Cassano’s Porsche was stolen from its perch outside his mother’s house. Almost immediately thereafter, a neighbor called a local radio station explaining what happened–the DJ disseminated the information throughout the town. 24-hours later Cassano’s Porsche was back in front of his mother’s house with a bouquet and an apology letter from the hooligans who had stolen it. There is another story of Cassano’s father, strung out from years of drug abuse, trying to reconnect with his son. Instead of watch the 21-year old suffer through the awkwardness and potential exploitation, a group of family and friends physically assaulted the elder Cassano and removed him from the property. Another describes the plight of an Italy youth team coach who dropped Cassano from the Azzuri youth fold after the firebrand openly criticized him. He chose unwisely to visit Bari a few weeks later for a scouting session, and chose even more unwisely to visit a local ristorante. A half hour later a group of 40 or so townsfolk mobbed around the cafe, cursing and threatening. He required a police escort to leave the premises.

When conjuring an image of Cassano in my mind, it’s tough not to think of college basketball (see The Fab Five) and football (the early 90’s Miami Hurricanes) players who, growing up in government housing with little to their name, often found wealthier community organizers who gave them money and protection under dubious circumstances and agreements. Cassano’s friends included local low-lifes; he became noticed early for his talent, and began courting attention and adulation from many of the townspeople, gangsters included. While many of these friends worked to ensure his protection, he was undoubtedly shown the underbelly of life frequently before he was able to lift himself out of it. It would be an understatement to say that he is rough around the edges. While his natural wealth of talent was supplemented with unlimited time and freedom to hone his craft in the streets of Old Bari, his natural aggression and mischief-making were equally fostered and encouraged. As an example–after his face was plastered across advertisements and highlight reels, pundits across the country began drawing attention to his acne (which was probably no worse than the average teenager). In response, Cassano vainly paid for a dermatologist to remove the top layer of skin from his face, a treatment which would, in theory allow his complexion to become more smooth. Displaying typical faulty decision-making, he drove straight from surgery to a local beach, and, hours later, was drastically sunburnt, erasing the benefits of the plastic surgery.

A social life borne out among alpha male competitions and consistent thuggish behavior perpetrated by he and his friends should have resulted, to no one’s surprise, in a thug. But Cassano’s affect is more complicated than that. Rather than accept him as the perennial villain, rough, malicious genius (think Coach Wolff Stanson in the second Mighty Ducks movie), I prefer to see Cassano as a slight variation on the classic Frankenstein, gentle beast motif. Less villain, more lovable fuck-up. More David Brent from The Office (substitute the awkwardness for arrogance), George Costanza from Seinfeld, or Walter White from Breaking Bad. Someone who you want, badly, to root for; but over a long period of time, enough happens that you can’t embrace him fully. In 2006, Abel Balbo, a teammate of Cassano during his Roma years, offered a telling story: “He’s a nice but dreadful boy. He’s a joker. Sometimes we even had to stop him from crapping in the beds of his team-mates. Crapping, yes. Like an animal.” From Amy Lawrence, in a 2006 Guardian profile: “He has a touch of Gazza, in that he’s a well-meaning boy with a destructive streak and volatile mentality…” Later in the profile: “The bad-boy image evidently frustrates him. ‘I have always been the scapegoat: any problem it’s always Cassano, Cassano, Cassano,’ he laments. ‘I’m sick of the label of being a controversial player who makes problems.’”

True, there aren’t many tales of generosity to offset the histories of vagary. He’s fallen out with every coach he’s ever played for; threatened to fight referees on the field; been red carded for pushing players to the ground; claims to have slept with between 600 and 700 women; gotten purposefully fat while in his prime; recently broke with a fan base he loved at Sampdoria over his refusal to attend an awards ceremony. On the other hand, you have his modest, even childish respect for his first coach Fabio Capello; playfully spraying reporters with a hose in what must have been many a footballer’s dream; his testament before the 2010 World Cup that he had matured and was ready to walk the straight and narrow as a father; and, for all his downside, he is simply irresistible on a football field. Watching Cassano on his day is like the experience of watching a movie where everyone is in black and white and one character is in color. It’s like if you were to transform the pitch into a beach for everyone except Cassano. Defenders consistently off-balance and struggling to shift one direction or another, Cassano nimbly hopping through them.

He is consistently demonized in the media. But if any of us could make a deal with the devil to have his touch, composure, and technical skill on the ball, we’d do it.

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