“The saddest thing in life is wasted talent,” Roberto De Niro passionately tells his son in the 1993 movie ‘A Bronx Tale’. While it’s debatable whether indeed that is accurate, there rings an element of truth to it. The sight of an individual capable of great things not achieving what they should can be immensely frustrating, worse still when it plays out in front of your eyes.
A lot has been said and written about Cristiano Ronaldo over the years, yet for all his vanity and self-absorbed tendencies, no one can dispute his single-minded pursuit of excellence. The Portuguese star committed himself to being the absolute best player he can possibly be, his work ethic simply unquestionable.
Then you have the other side of the coin; enter one Antonio Cassano. Perhaps no player in recent times – certainly not in the Italian game - epitomizes De Niro’s words more than Cassano, for so long the enfant terribile of Serie A.
Cassano’s story is one of consistent fallings out with key personnel at some of Europe’s biggest clubs and a steadfast belief that talent in itself was enough to succeed at the upper echelons of the game. One of the last street footballers Italy produced; a player rough around the edges who possessed an innate ability to make the game look so extraordinarily easy, but his name has become a byword for ‘what if’.
However this is neither the time nor the place to examine Cassano’s failings, he has done that himself in his brutally honest-yet-boastful 2008 autobiography I Say All. We are here to revel in the beauty of his first Serie A goal, and as far as first goals go, there surely hasn’t been many better in the Italian game.
Bari endured a mixed spell in the 1990s. They were relegated and promoted twice in the decade and by the final year of the 20th century were enjoying their third season back in the top flight. They finished the 1998-99 season in a respectable tenth place.
Coached by lower league specialist Eugenio Fascetti, the Bari squad of 1999-00 was a mix of experienced foreign players sprinkled with a dash of Italian youth. Simone Perrotta, Matteo Ferrari, Gionatha Spinesi and of course Cassano complemented the likes of Phil Masinga, Daniel Andersson and cult hero Yksel Osmanovski. This was a solid, if unspectacular team in the era of the Sette Sorelle.
By December and with the winter break nearing, Bari were exceeding expectations, so much so that the Baresi faithful were beginning to dream of European football. Cassano had made his Serie A debut in the Derby della Puglia, a 1-0 defeat on 11 December. A week later, his life would never be quite the same.
Bari’s final game of the century saw them host Inter at Stadio San Nicola. The San Nicola, located on the outskirts of the city, is an aesthetically pleasing stadium, a rarity for Italian stadia. One of the few stadiums built entirely for Italia ’90, it’s simply too big for a club of Bari’s stature — it’s known as a ‘spacecraft’ by the locals for its propensity to look as such during night games. It was also the setting for Cassano’s explosion into the limelight.
Inter had entered the season as one of the firm favourites to win the title. Marcello Lippi had swapped Turin for Milan and with Massimo Moratti once again splashing the cash, making Christian Vieri the most expensive player in the world, and with a squad already bursting with talent, many thought the Paul Newman lookalike would finally end Inter’s decade-long wait for another Scudetto.
Inter of the 1990s was, well, a bit like now: lots of money but a severe lack of communication and organisation throughout the club. Lippi’s side hadn’t started the season as hoped and going into the match with Bari they were already lagging five points behind leaders Lazio and Juventus. Having already lost four times, they could ill afford to lose this match.
Fortune favoured Cassano, as injuries to preferred duo Osmanovski and Masinga meant the 17-year-old was awarded his first ever league start, alongside fellow youngster Hugo Eniynnaya. Together they had the same combined age, 34, as one of Inter’s starting central defenders, Laurent Blanc.
On a miserably wet night in the San Nicola, it only took seven minutes into the game for one of them to make an impact. Receiving the ball some 30 metres from the Inter goal, Eniynnaya volleyed a speculative shot past Angelo Peruzzi, several yards off his line, into the top corner. Whilst a tremendous shotstopper, Peruzzi had a penchant for being lobbed throughout his career, yet the accuracy of Eniynnaya’s effort shouldn’t be understated. Sadly the goal, and indeed the player, became largely forgotten about, through no fault of the player.
Inter, however, weren’t behind for long as Vieri levelled the score. Following what was either a stroke of genius from Ivan Zamarano or just sheer luck, after Vieri’s initial effort was saved, the Chilean squared the ball back to Vieri, who slammed it home. The Catholic Church, those beacons of morality, had described Vieri’s record breaking £32 million transfer from Lazio to Inter as an ‘insult to the poor’, however the striker was delivering for the Nerazzurri.
Cassano was born into poverty in Bari Vecchia, the old historic part of the city. If one has ever taken a walk through this maze of narrow, cluttered and at times claustrophobic alleyways, you can envision how he was able to score his first goal. Kids can still be seen playing football in any available space, potential Cassanos amongst them.
With two minutes left and a draw looking increasingly likely, Inter desperately pushed forward in search of a win. Midfielder Daniel Andersson gained control of the ball deep in the Bari half, before noticing Cassano high up the field, to the left near the touchline. The Swedish international then launched a long ball in Cassano’s direction, but it was slightly ahead of the striker. Cassano ran to meet the ball whilst being chased by Blanc and Christian Panucci.
As the ball dropped from the sky, Cassano controlled it by flicking it - first time - with the outside of his right foot, near his heel. The ball spun upwards and he pushed his head to meet the ball, sending it in front of him on to his left foot. Now comfortably ahead of Blanc and speeding into the box from the left-hand side with Panucci closing in, Cassano majestically weaved past the Italian by cutting in onto his right foot, leaving only goalkeeper Fabrizio Ferron and Cassano. The soon-to-be-crowned Il Gioello di Bari Vecchia (jewel of old Bari) showed remarkable composure and placed the ball emphatically into the bottom corner of the Inter goal.
The San Nicola erupted as Cassano ran over to celebrate in front of the Curva Nord and was joined by just about everyone of a Bari persuasion. A star was born.
Though the entire goal is a mark of genius, it’s really Cassano’s opening three touches - from right heel to head to left foot – that exposes the sheer level of his innate talent. To pull off such fluid control whilst running at full speed and being pursued by two defenders is nothing sort of miraculous. One can imagine Cassano scoring this goal numerous times in front of the San Nicola church in the old town.
In the aftermath of the game he was labeled as Roberto Baggio’s heir by the Italian media. Seven minutes prior to the goal, Lippi had brought on Baggio in the hope of winning the match. It was somewhat fitting that Baggio was witness to Cassano’s moment of brilliance, for if there was ever a Baggio-esque goal, this was it. Much in the same way as a decade earlier when Baggio signalled his own arrival in Serie A with a Maradona-like masterpiece in Diego’s backyard in September 1989. History was repeating itself.
Cassano received 7.5 from La Gazzetta dello Sport in the following day’s newspaper. “The leader of the next generation,” they claimed, “Cassano is a continuation of the dynastic line of Mancini-Baggio-Zola-Totti-Del Piero.” There is no doubt that based on talent alone, he deserved to be mentioned in the same breath as those illustrious names, but that’s where it ends.
The possibilities seemed endless for the Antonio Cassano of 1999. Bari’s strong first half of the season was the only thing that kept them in the division for another campaign, as they inexplicably collapsed in the second half of 99-00, winning only four more games. The following season they finished rock bottom, and inevitably their star player was sold to the highest bidder. Had Cassano chosen Juventus instead of Roma in 2001, there is no knowing how his career might have unfolded.
As you watch this goal, De Niro’s words just echo louder and louder. A talent, a supreme talent, wasted.
Words by Emmet Gates: @EmmetGates
Emmet is a freelance football writer based in Italy. He is the creator of Goal O' The Times. As well as The Gentleman Ultra, he has written for FourFourTwo, These Football Times and In Bed With Maradona.