If the old cliché about genius and madness being closely related is in fact true, then it is safe to say that Antonio Cassano is probably the finest example of a genius Calcio has ever known. The young man known as ‘Fantantonio’ for his sublime footballing ability, and ‘Cassanata’ for his equally impressive histrionics, is a player whose history threatens to ruin his international career. His current adversary is the Azzurri coach Marcello Lippi, a man who has won everything that matters in football and therefore a man with whom it is quite difficult to disagree without sounding foolish. All this leaves quite a difficult situation, with the majority of people caught between the two sides, not sure whether to trust in one of Italy’s greatest coaches or one of its greatest talents.
Part 1: Il Talentino
Since his return to Italy with Sampdoria, Cassano has calmed down a lot. No longer is there the constant string of highly publicised bust-ups with teammates, coaches and anyone else that dares to disagree with him. He appears to have regained his focus. His temper has not left him entirely – as shown by his astonishing tantrum against Torino on March 2, 2008, where, after being sent off, Cassano burst into tears and flung his shirt at the referee – but he has learned to control himself more than in previous years. The trail of personal destruction Cassanata left at Roma and Real Madrid meant he had become a player to avoid, and when Madrid effectively cut ties with him in 2007, a lesser player may have faded into obscurity feeling sorry for himself. Not Cassano. He has not only shone for i Blucerchiati but also shown a newfound maturity, becoming the vice-captain of the team in only his second season at the club.
Putting Antonio’s personality aside, it is his performances on the pitch that prove the most compelling argument for his inclusion in the Azzurri squad. The recent Confederations Cup illustrated that, amongst other things, Italy is crying out for the next Francesco Totti, Alessandro Del Piero or Roberto Baggio – and it is no exaggeration to say that Fantantonio can fulfill this role at a similar level to his illustrious peers. He does not just score goals, he scores magnificent goals, and has done for all of the teams in which he has played. Although he may not have the goalscoring ratio of a Luca Toni or Filippo Inzaghi, you do not include a Fantasista merely for goals. Players like Cassano present a constant threat to the opposition, and as such need to be man-marked at all times. They can take one or two opponents out of the game simply by their presence. One cannot make a contingency plan to combat il Talentino because there is no way of knowing what he will do next, and in Italy’s case, they badly need a player with this unpredictability. Andrea Pirlo is currently deployed as the Azzurri’s creative threat, but because of his deep-lying midfield position, his influence in attack can be limited, and the current strikers employed by Lippi – Vincenzo Iaquinta, Toni, Fabio Quagliarella, Alberto Gilardino and Giuseppe Rossi have shown that they are not up to this creative task.
It has been suggested that Cassano may not fit into the tactical system favoured by Marcello Lippi, and that the former Juventus boss prefers more conventional strikers, but this is not an argument that stands up well to scrutiny. Whilst it is true that the Sampdoria man is not an orthodox striker, he is an incredibly versatile footballer who is able to play as a striker, second striker, trequartista and even occasionally on the wing. Were it the case that such a multi-talented player could not be accommodated into a tactical system it would be a damning reflection on the skills of the coach, rather than on the ability of the footballer. The other argument, of course, is that when there is such a talented player as Cassano available the coach should adapt his system to accommodate the player. Lippi did not even consider dropping a half-fit Francesco Totti for the World Cup in 2006 – when the Roma man was out for the three months preceding the tournament with a broken ankle – let alone create a new system to play without him. The point is as follows. Totti was so important to Lippi’s plans that he adapted the team to compensate for Er Pupone’s lack of match fitness and the team won the tournament with Totti topping the assists ranking. Any coach who is tactically aware enough to do this should be able to find a space for a player like Cassano in the team should he so wish. Therefore the question becomes, why does Marcello Lippi not want to pick Antonio Cassano?
It is not as if Fantantonio is short of high profile admirers elsewhere in the footballing world. Before the recent Brazil vs. Italy clash, the Brazilian goalkeeper Julio Cesar confessed: “Luckily for us Cassano won’t be playing tomorrow…Antonio is one of my favourite players. He is almost impossible to read and has a wealth of fantasy.” Even people with whom Cassano has a tumultuous history see him as the man to lead Italy’s attack. Claudio Gentile, the former Azzurrini Tactician had this to say on the subject: “The Confederations Cup clearly said that Italy need to be renewed. The first player I think of is Antonio Cassano, with whom I had many problems…But now he has matured as a man and, considering his pure class, can be useful to Lippi’s national team.” Now whilst it is true that the opinion of the majority is not always correct, when the majority consists of almost everyone except Lippi, it is difficult to understand why the Coach does not just give ‘el Pibe de Bari’ the chance that his performances merit. It is especially strange when one considers that in Cassano and Giampaolo Pazzini, Lippi has a young Italian strikeforce that plays together week-in-week-out for Sampdoria and has built a strong understanding.
From Cassano’s point of view and the legions of Sampdoria tifosi there is no justification for the way Lippi continually overlooks il Talentino for the Azzurri. In the past discipline problems, a highly combustible personality and a much more talented group of strikers would have meant that Cassano’s selection would have been viewed as controversial, but this man into which he finally appears to be maturing is an absolute must-have player. His new coach at Sampdoria, Luigi Del Neri sums up the new Cassano nicely: “He’s showing seriousness and desire, he’s changing. You can see he wants to have an important season. Both him and Pazzini want to earn back a place in the national team.” But for now, given the problems Italy seems to be facing, it defies belief that one of the most talented Italian players of his generation cannot even earn a chance to prove his worth.