Before the World Cup in 1998, there was a debate raging in England about whether the hugely talented but controversial Paul Gascoigne should be selected for the squad; eventually he was overlooked by Glen Hoddle and the rest is history. Now in Italy, a similar story is developing around the gifted Antonio Cassano. Like Gazza, Cassano’s talent cannot be questioned, but his professionalism and attitude can be, and it is this that has discouraged Marcello Lippi from selecting him.
Antonio Cassano is considered by many to be the most gifted Italian forward available to Lippi (now that Totti is retired from the international game), but you cannot blame Lippi for having his doubts given the Sampdoria man’s chequered past. Cassano has a history of clashing with coaches; former Roma bosses Fabio Capello and Luigi Del Neri have had spats with the player and he has also feuded with Roma legend Francesco Totti and Capello again when the two were at Real Madrid. But the Italian’s fiery temperament is not his only vice.
Cassano has already released two autobiographies and the revelations about his private life are extraordinary. He claims to have slept with “600 to 700” women and his lifestyle during his time at Real Madrid was nothing short of hedonistic. He would bribe the bell-boy to sneak women into his hotel room and then bring him numerous pastries. His motto is ‘Sex plus food: a perfect night’; hardly the philosophy one should ascribe to on the eve of a big match. While at Madrid his poor diet lead to the club fining him for every gram he remained over his ideal playing weight. As his career in the Spanish capital came to an end it felt as if Cassano would never amount to anything as a football player, that his talent would never be realised. But now at Sampdoria he is enjoying something of a renaissance; with Cassano in the side, Sampdoria managed to finish 6th in the 2007/08 season. This season they have started strongly with Cassano at the heart of much of their attacking play and currently lie in an impressive 4th position. Cassano is playing some fine football and his partnership with Giampaolo Pazzini is regarded as one of the most dangerous in the league; they have even drawn comparisons with the striking duo of Gianluca Vialli and Roberto Mancini that lead Sampdoria to the title in 1991.
Despite Cassano’s resurgence, he has only gained 15 caps for Italy and Lippi has resisted the calls for his reinstatement to the national side. Despite leading the country to victory in 2006, Lippi is losing support as a result of what many people see as stubbornness. He has concerns that Cassano’s presence would destabilise the team and is unwilling to take the risk of selecting the Sampdoria forward and damaging team spirit. The campaign has been taken up by various media outlets in Italy and some senior internationals including goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon have expressed their support for Cassano. The Italian squad is ageing and frankly no country in the world can really afford to pass up on a player the quality of Cassano; yet Lippi has recently reiterated his stance on the player and barring a series of injuries to other players, Cassano will end up watching the World Cup on the television. It would be a shame if the world doesn’t get to see this talented and bizarre individual while he is in his prime; if he doesn’t make it, his enduring legacy on the international stage will be the image of him crying after Italy’s early exit in Euro 2004, his talent deserves more but perhaps he doesn’t.