The 1990s inside Bari’s biggest slum – the San Nicola district of Bari Vecchia – were particularly difficult times for the second most important economic centre of mainland Southern Italy. It was an era of desperation, coming off the back of a political scandal known as Tangentopoli. This led to the release of information which implicated hundreds of politicians and exposed a tidal wave of corruption.
Then, as now, very little initiatives were taken to improve the Apulia region. All too often in the port city, the youth have been left to look after themselves and have been afforded few positive role models in a place where Sacra Corona Unita – Apulia’s organized crime unit – dominate the susceptible and vulnerable.
Meanwhile, in the mid-90s', A.S. Bari were floating between the second and third tiers of Italian football. There was no mistaking the fervour for the home team though, as after the club moved to the Olympic-sized San Nicola Stadium in 1991, it almost always reached maximum capacity. Attending home games was the one release for the Baresi. The San Nicola was a place where the public could blow off steam that had build during the week, forget about their daily hardships, and simply live for the moment.
It was in this era that one of Italy’s most exciting prospects was sharpening his teeth on the streets. Just as a diamond is shaped under severe pressure, San Nicola produced its own gem, a teenager by the name of Antonio Cassano. Growing up with his mother, after his father had abandoned the family, the young boy was left little privilege. What he loved to do though, the one thing that couldn’t be taken away from him, was playing calcio.
That love fostered and fuelled his talent. He would bet on himself against the older kids in the ghetto, playing for money as a way to afford his daily bread. It was these critical moments in the slums that moulded little Antonio into of Italy’s most talented fantasisti of all time.
After being scouted by Bari, he earned a place on the first-team at just 17 years old. Excitement grew like wildfire over the hometown boy. He was the one who made it, the one who could lift the city out of its gloom and offer that glimmer of hope in a place where opportunities were few and far between. He had achieved nothing yet, but if you had asked the Galetti faithful, the sky was the limit for the youngster.
Then, his moment of reckoning came. On 18 December 1999, Bari hosted Internazionale. Late in the game, a long pass to the teenager saw him coolly control the ball with the outside of his foot, just past the halfway line as two Inter defenders tried to catch him. A cut in from the left, a feint to the defender, and a drilling shot past the keeper made the San Nicola erupt in screams and shrills. The 89th minute goal resonated throughout the peninsula, like the beacon of a lighthouse through the fog. There was so much hope and brightness.
A high-profile move to A.S. Roma broke the all-time record transfer fee for a teenager at 60 billion lire, or 30 million euros – a staggering sum, even if Roma were the reigning Serie A champions. In his first season, the thrilling teenager bagged five goals, but also stirred controversy by having an open row with coach Fabio Capello after being dropped. These outbursts would become known as his signature ‘Cassanate.’
He won Serie A’s Young Footballer of the Year award during that time, and again in 2003. This was the same season where he would flash ‘the horns’ – the Mediterranean way of telling someone to go die or screw themselves – at the referee during a Coppa Italia final against Milan. Roma lost 4-1 in front of their home crowd.
By the time Cassano complained himself out of Rome and was purchased by Real Madrid, the striker had added more than a couple of kilograms to his frame. He then donned the nickname ‘El gordito’, or the fat one. Madrid would be the first of many locations he sought refuge for his career, but his personal demons would continue to chase him across clubs.
When Capello joined the Galacticos, the same issues between the two resurfaced. Club president Ramon Calderon went so far as to describe the striker’s attitude as "unsustainable in the last couple of months," and indicated that the player would move to another club.
A transfer to Sampdoria in the summer of 2007 would then act as the Renaissance for his career. A newfound relationship with the up-and-coming Giampaolo Pazzini saw the ex-Viola player register 22 goals, while Cassano was often the mastermind of those goals, and even scored nine himself. On the last match day of the 2010-11 season, their tag-team derailed the title push of Claudio Ranieri’s Roma — the castaway was the driving force behind Pazzini’s double, and the late-April Roman nightmare relegated the Giallorossi to another second-place-finish.
Ultimately, however, Cassano’s mouthy and adverse relationship with the late Riccardo Garrone saw him force his way to Milan in the 2011 January transfer window. After the move, the club’s former owner stated, “I have no feelings of consideration nor acceptance of his psychological problems, especially after what he said…There is no way I can say that he is a man with values.”
They were tough words, especially for a player who no longer had age as an excuse. But with a return to the highest echelons of Serie A, there was a hope anew, even if it did seem Cassano’s maturity remained in doubt. Maybe, just maybe, he would live up to expectations on a big stage. With Milan, perhaps he could become the number 10 the Azzurri were begging for.
The Rossoneri were something to behold at the time, featuring the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Alexandre Pato, and Robinho. Pressure mounted on the new addition, but he remained to fight for his place and work his way back into the Azzurri fold. Then came the desperate misfortune. Whilst travelling back to Milan after a match against Roma on 29 October 2011, Cassano suffered a stroke, temporarily becoming paralysed and speechless. The former Bari man was immediately operated on and quite incredibly, having been formally diagnosed with ischemic-based cerebral damage, he would play again six months later. The full recovery even saw him return as a leader in Cesare Prandelli’s Italy side.
Cassano had been integral for many of the Azzurri’s qualifiers leading up to the 2012 European Championship, and he picked up right where he left off by playing in every one of his side’s six matches in the tournament. Some controversy stirred at the press conference when asked if he thought there were any homosexual players in his squad. He replied: “I hope not.” It was not diplomatic, proper or prudent, but it was a far cry from the Cassanate of the past. Just Cassano.
His moments in the tournament demonstrated that he had blossomed into the classic number 10 all had hoped for. Assisting Mario Balotelli’s first goal in the semi-final after dazzling past two German defenders and crossing with his left to find Super Mario in the air, his artistry had outsmarted the heavily-favoured German side.
Although a fatigued and decimated Italy team would come up short in the final, losing 4-0 against Spain, it was a positive performance from Il Gioiello di Bari Vecchia (The Jewel of Old Bari). Yet, while he would make the squad for the 2014 World Cup, the after effects of 2012 saw him fall from international grace with the emergence of younger, more dependable talents such as Ciro Immobile and Lorenzo Insigne.
Just as he made headway as the mature maker of fantasy, Cassano’s history came back to haunt his career. The high-profile coaches on the peninsula lost faith in him, and the player seemed to settle, accepting of his fate. Cassano struggled to rediscover his Euro 2012 form and it seemed the swift-passing, and enchanting link-up play he had once demonstrated with Roma’s Francesco Totti a decade back was completely lost.
A move to Parma saw him improve his temper and regain fitness. He even dropped a couple of kilos and lost some of that infamous gut. In just 56 games he scored 18 times and created 10 assists; not half-bad for Fantantonio (Fantastic Antonio). It was a nostalgic brief renaissance, but nothing more. And, after not being paid for half a year as Parma descended into serious financial trouble, Cassano terminated his contract with the Emilia club.
His return to Sampdoria was trivial. A couple of insignificant goals interspersed the new tenure; as well as a couple of rows with the animated president, Massimo Ferrero. After being frozen out of the first team in the beginning of the 2016-17 season, he trained with the Primavera. His contract was terminated on 25 January.
Now 35 years of age, Cassano prefers to spend time with his wife and enjoy those crucial moments with his young kids, Christopher and Lionel—the times he was never afforded as a young boy. Regardless of the missed silverware, he seems internally happy.
Although he has failed to fulfil the potential he first demonstrated 17 years ago, his construction of internal peace is a monumental development in the career and life of the once poor boy in Bari Vecchia; the boy whose mother was abandoned by his father, the boy who literally gambled on himself in order to stave off the hunger.
Words by Wayne Girard: @WayneinRome
Wayne is an assistant professor at Monmouth University, and wrote his MA thesis on the politics of Roma's Curva Sud. As well as @GentlemanUltra, he can also be found writing for @OfficialASRoma