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11th July 1982; Italy defeat West Germany 3-1 in the World Cup final in front of millions of adoring fans in the luxuries of the Santiago Bernabeu. One day later, Antonio Cassano is born into poverty in the port city of Bari on the Adriatic Sea in the south of Italy, where narrow streets dominate the maze-like capital of southern Italy’s Puglia region.
Not long after, his father left the family to fend for themselves, and it was these very streets that a youthful Cassano honed his abilities as a footballer and indeed his personality as a human being, both on and off the pitch.
Local club Bari 1908 had already witnessed the likes of David Platt turn out at the Stadio San Nicola, while Leonardo Bonucci and even Celtic youngster Liam Henderson would go on to play for the side. Even Antonio Conte and more recently former Italy international Fabio Grosso have represented the club, this time in a managerial capacity, but in 1999 they found one of their own. They found the ‘Kid from Bari’.
A scout from Bari soon lifted Cassano from the streets and placed him into the starting line up for the club’s final game of the 20th century, a home fixture against none other than Serie A giants Inter Milan. The Cockerels went one nil up, yet were pegged back after just 13 minutes when one of the country’s greatest ever forwards, Christian Vieri, levelled the scores. With 88 minutes on the clock, a 17-year-old Cassano decided to take matters into his own hands as he nonchalantly took a lofted pass under control, before giving both Christian Panucci and Laurent Blanc the slip and sliding the ball home. Not a bad way to score your first Serie A goal.
Destined for great things, how could it all go so badly wrong? Now labelled as the ‘Jewel of Old Bari’ and later as Fantantonio for his technical skill, the unsurprising interests of much bigger clubs simply couldn’t be ignored, and it was the riches of Roma where Cassano would then begin to fully establish himself in Italian football. At £26 million, the young striker became the most expensive teenager in the history of the sport, now considered pennies compared to his attacking counterparts Anthony Martial and Kylian Mbappe. However, just as things seemed hugely promising as he picked up the Serie A Young Footballer of the Year award on two occasions at Roma, they equally began to go badly wrong.
His controversial antics were already well and truly established behind the scenes, yet came to light most notably in a clash with Roma coach Fabio Capello, who left him out of a practice match just after his international debut. And quite simply, from then on in, Cassano’s quarrels became more renowned than his playing ability.
From being sent off for protesting at the referee in the 2003 Italian Cup final – after which he gestured with the sign of the horns towards the official – to wearing the captain’s armband in the absence of Francesco Totti, to then bitterly parting ways with the club over contract negotiations, his time in Rome was a roller coaster of a journey, to say the least. However, all of that somehow brought him to the heights of Real Madrid where, despite scoring three minutes into his debut, he soon earned the nickname ‘Gordito’ due to his visible weight gain, for which Madrid fined him regularly. Reunited with Capello in the Spanish capital, things once again turned ugly, and another high-profile spat between the pair resulted in Madrid president Ramon Calderon gladly indicating that the forward would be on his way out.
Red cards, public arguments and very few goals followed as Cassano journeyed around Italy, from Sampdoria to Parma and back to Sampdoria in the space of ten years, with back-to-back spells at both Milan clubs in between. A once-promising career then bordered on humiliation, with the controversial forward announcing his decision to retire from football just days after joining Hellas Verona. Hours then passed before he reversed the decision and chose to continue playing. Just one week later and it incredibly his mind was swayed back to retirement. After failing to play a single game for the side, it was now onto Serie C outfit Virtus Entella as recently as October 2018, yet the farce continued as he announced his official retirement from football not long after.
Despite a simply chaotic career, Cassano managed to leave with at least some club honours to his name, having lifted the Supercoppa Italiana twice, along with a league title in both Spain and Italy. That is, however, the abrupt and ultimately disappointing ending for yet another footballer who perhaps could have and should have had so much more.