The rise, the fall, the return, the fall, the return, the fall, and the return of Antonio Cassano.
IV: The Boy Who Became A Prima Donna
There is a prolific term in Italian football popularized by Fabio Capello while at Roma: Cassanata. Translated as “Cassano-ism,” Capello used it to describe the frequent on and off field bad behavior Cassano exhibited during 2002. Looking back over his career, other than his boyhood club Bari, with whom he’s maintained an affectionate relationship (apologizing to fans once after scoring there while with Sampdoria), he’s left every club he’s played for in varying levels of disgrace. Tamed and encouraged by Capello, his rise to fame at Roma was merited by the results of his play, which were often extraordinary; however, his upside was tempered by constant irrational behavior. Roma lost Capello at the beginning of the 2004-2005 season. This, along with the hiring of the more serene Rudi Voller, seemed to be the tipping point for the now 23-year old starlet (compare to Mike Tyson’s personal implosion after he lost his beloved trainer, Teddy Atlas). Before he played a minute of the new season, he stormed out of a training session; in the first game of the season he was red carded for shoving an opposing player to the ground; Roma replaced Voller with Luigi Del Neri, but Cassano did not react any more positively, openly arguing with Del Neri after his substitution against Inter Milan. Later in the season, after another training ground bust-up, the Roma coach asked Cassano to work out in solitude for 10 days, prompting club President Franco Sensi to remark: “Cassano deserves a slap in the face, not the 5m euro he currently gets.”After a 2004-2005 season of highs, lows, and frequent managerial turnover, Cassano began the 2005-2006 season out of a contract and out of favor. He wrangled for a new contract.
Roma were unwilling to pay him the wages he desired. He sulked. No one was surprised. His holdout smacked of the same attitude which caused Capello to coin Cassanata in the first place. He wanted to stay, but Roma, beset by league troubles, saw a Cassano-less future, selling him to Real Madrid for a paltry six million pounds (that’s a 16 million loss, if anyone’s counting). Roma, relieved, embarked on an 11-game winning streak after he was gone. At Madrid, he rarely played during his first six months, and compensated by eating himself into an out-of-shape (that’s a nice way of describing it) caricature of himself. Filling the role of a substitute was clearly unsatisfying for the 24-year old, so he began filling himself with rolls. During this time period, he alleges that he would sleep with a different woman each night, brought (bought?) by the bellhop of his hotel; he’d then get the bellhop to bring him pastries afterwards. Hedonism to the extreme. Clearly, if excessive behavior on the field wasn’t an option, excessive behavior off the field would have to do.
Needless to say, his relationships soured at Madrid. Despite Madrid hiring the erstwhile father figure and role model Fabio Capello, Cassano was unable to carve a role for himself in the team. He fell out with the disciplinarian over his playing time. You could imagine the conversation went something like: “I want to play!”…“But you’re out of shape.”…“So what!” From the Guardian in January, 2007: “They [Sampdoria] may even have acted on the current rumour of a swoop for Antonio Cassano, who hammered the last nail in the coffin of his Real career over Christmas with a remarkably accurate impersonation of Capello on the sidelines.” A few months later, he signed (at first on a loan basis, and then permanently) with the Genovese club Sampdoria. He would spend some of his happiest months at il Samp, bordering on the sublime at times, and characteristically losing his head at others. On the one hand, he befuddled Genoa in a derby showdown with absurd dribbling and passing; on the other, he exploded at a referee for giving him a yellow card that would ban him from his next game at Roma, leaving the field in tears.
But before too long (three years, to be exact) during which Cassano propelled Sampdoria into the Champions League, the diminuitive Italian had again felt the itch and pressed the self-destruct button. Asked by club chairman to attend a small, regional awards show, Cassano refused. The two men got into an argument in which, reputedly, Cassano dubbed the chairman “elderly;” the latter immediately threatened to rescind Cassano’s contract, saying, among other things, “Cassano will never wear the Sampdoria shirt again.” The player and the club went back and forth. At first, Cassano apologized and pleaded with the management to stay; the club steadfastly refused. Cassano then sought 1 million pounds in damages which the club refused to pay. The saga ended finally with a transfer to AC Milan in January 2011, a welcome development for all parties.
Wayward, unpredictable, misanthropic, lockerroom killer, mischief-maker. The Cassano who began as a poor boy raised in a poor town had grown into, of all things, a major prima donna, a egotist of the highest order. His behavior was inexcusable (not that he was ever, really, apologetic), and yet, in the light of the expectations placed on his shoulders (he was hailed by turns as the successor to Baggio and Del Piero and the most natural talent of his generation), his career seems all too predictable. Parallels exist everywhere in pop culture of the child star who rose to fame too quickly to have any real grip on reality: Michael Jackson, Macauley Caulkin, Gary Coleman, Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen, the list goes on. Cassano could and should be added to this list. His career was a perfect formula for repeated meltdowns: raised in a rough area, prospered among thuggish friends, rose to fame at a young age, suddenly had more money than he knew what to do with. One enigma remains, however: why can’t Cassano stay settled? In some respects, he tends toward the trope of the dissatisfied Huck Finn, who cannot bear to live a static life. Every time life cools and things tend permanently towards the better, he leaves.