Friday, January 13, 2006
His reputation precedes him
Picture being strapped onto a car in or on a rollercoaster and sensing different forces apparently trying to tear your body apart.
Transfer it all to a metaphorical level and this, in a few words, is the feeling than Antonio Cassano's transfer to Real Madrid has left many with.
Prejudice, first impressions, word of mouth, pictorial evidence all converge to confound judgment and create doubts. It is not easy to take a definitive stand without having second thoughts on a move that filled the front pages of the three Italian sports dailies and was deemed worthy of live coverage status from at least a couple of TV channels.
Much has been written about Cassano's tough childhood in the inner city of Bari, the town on the Southern part of the Adriatic Coast facing Albania, and the fact football rescued him from what might have turned into a dangerous lifestyle, once his father left the family and his mother was left alone to raise him.
Much has also been said about a cliche, which can't possibly be more accurate than in his case, that you can take the man from the street but cannot take the street from the man.
Everything about Cassano, in a way, always reminded us of his origins: the crude pranks in the dressing rooms, the frustration-venting kick at a corner flag after scoring a goal at the Stadio Olimpico, the 'horns' hand gesture, Italy's traditional insult (it basically means the ref's wife is not particularly faithful), to a referee that had sent him off, the angry reaction at being taken off and a further selection of attitudinal delicacies all speak of a young man who has a lot of problems with authority.
Of course I will stop at this before stepping into the minefield of trying to link his behaviour to the absence of a father figure in his life.
Interestingly, he always professed his love for Fabio Capello, who had to bear the brunt of his antics in Roma but managed to coax some great performances out of him.
Cassano told newspapers 'Capello dealt with me in a way that not even I can, and made me a great player... He was like a father to me'. Got the message, then. This may either be a reflection of Capello's greatness as a manager or an indictment of all those who came after him - a long list including Rudi Voller, Bruno Conti, Ezio Sella, Gigi Del Neri - and failed to bring a modicum of decency to Cassano's behaviour.
Luciano Spalletti, who was brought in eight months ago to stabilize Roma's ship, rocked back and forth by the variety of vibrant soccer humanity that place can generate, with local radio and TV stations and a dedicated daily newspaper, Il Romanista ('The Roma fan', just like a milanista is an Inter fan and juventino is a Juve fan. Check it at www.ilromanista.it and don't shoot the messenger).
All adding pressure, but of course all those media only reflect and perhaps amplify what is already set in the ways of a club that only last September set a number of written rules all players had to follow, a ten-page tome authored by Spalletti, Totti, Conti and Montella.
Spalletti took virtually no time in stripping Cassano of his vice-captaincy, giving Montella the honour, and by late July Cassano had already been fined 100,000 euros, later reduced to 20,000, for having refused to play in the giallorossi in their first pre-season friendly.
Enter lengthy contract negotiations, during which he spent most of the time on the sidelines. His deal was due to expire in June this year, and having spent nearly 30 million euros for him only four and a half years ago Roma were desperate neither to let him go for free next summer nor to keep him as a distraction for the team-mates, but a deal was never reached, in a crescendo of rejected proposals, petty accusations and increasing friction with the supporters, most of whom could not wait to see the back of Cassano.
And Roma ended up getting five million euros, in instalments, with a huge net loss on him and no scudettos or trophies in return, while he was Italy's most effective player at the 2004 European Championship, where he scored a goal against Bulgaria that would have seen the azzurri through had Sweden and Denmark not drawn. Interestingly, and here word of mouth comes into the picture - or rather quickly dissolves - no one ever accused him of antics off the pitch.
Despite a couple of indiscretions involving high-powered cars and the wider boulevards on Rome's outskirts, there was never the amount of gossip that has centered around other players and usually accompanies every athlete who hits a bad patch (witness Gianluigi Buffon's recent struggles in fully recovering from his shoulder injury, which the shallow minds of too many people link to his high-profile relationship with TV 'personality' Alena Seredova).
Cassano, apparently, reserved his awkward behaviour for the dressing room and the practice field, in an endless streak of incidents which produced some distance between him and his teammates.
Reserve goalkeeper Eleftheropoulos said Roma would be better off without him, while defender Christian Chivu has remarked back in August that Cassano was causing trouble to himself rather than his team-mates. That he left without stopping at the Trigoria training center to bid Totti and others farewell was also seen by many as an outrageous example of his arrogance and bad attitude, while others, such as his friends back in Bari, hinted this week that Cassano, as a genuine person unwilling to fake feelings, would have hated to put on a mask of faux politeness just to be seen doing the right thing.
A highly debatable point of view, of course, but many are the examples of Cassano simply blocking everything out of his sight and going his own way.
His main supporter in the media has been Eugenio Fascetti, who coached him at Bari and has always insisted, once the situation in Rome got beyond repair, that he should leave Italy and the little men who cannot understand his genious.
'Our clubs are giving money to a bunch of nobodies but have none for a player like him? It gets me angry that Italian soccer lost him, but at least Roma won't make him a scapegoat now for their problems, and his relationship with Totti had degenerated too. But giving him away for five million euros, like some old piece of junk? I do not know whether to laugh or cry'.
The same reaction, and let's get now to the pictorial evidence section, was prompted in many who saw his arrival in Madrid last week, wearing a Seventies' style, fur-collared jacket, an assortment of jewellery and a huge, half-inch thick ring on his right little finger that unfortunately reinforced the way, held by many with more than a whiff of underlying snobbery, that Cassano needs to grow out of his inner city looks, especially now that his antics have been rewarded with a move to the world's most popular club, a fact difficult to stomach for a lot of people.
But none of this of course has anything to do with the outstanding contribution Real Madrid, whatever their limitations in other areas of the pitch, can expect from him, with Marcello Lippi finally breathing a sigh of relief as he'd stated many times there would be no room in his World Cup squad for Cassano if he had stayed on the bench all season for Roma.
While Antonio was already going through his paces in training, trying to shed a few extra pounds he'd put on recently by virtue of less than rigorous practice, another prominent Italian striker was completing his move abroad.
Christian Vieri's six months at Milan were just short of nondescript. He settled in perfectly among players he already knew and we were told by all and sundry that he was in a better physical shape than he'd been for a while, but this never translated into actual results, and once Pippo Inzaghi came back from injury Vieri slid to fourth in the pecking order of Milan strikers.
Milan fans with a penchant for the supernatural believed he'd somehow save his goalscoring energy - not that he seemed to do it on purpose - for the Milan derby on December 11, and indeed he figured prominently in the picture of the winning goal that was published in many newspapers the next morning - unfortunately, he can be seen being clearly outjumped by Inter's Adriano, whom he was trying to guard on that last minute corner.
As you can read elsewhere on Soccernet, he needed to play in order to convince Lippi that his diminishing powers could still be good for Italy in five months' time, but he'd have to score a lot of goals to do that, and get some of them in big games, too, not only against the minnows, according to a reputation that is perhaps too unkind to one of the best Italian goalscorers of the last decade.
A friend of mine, who's Inter through and through, took a look at the list of games in which Vieri had scored his first 100 goals for Inter and, brushing aside every crumb of gratitude for Vieri's remarkable six-year stint with the nerazzurri, duly commented 'I hadn't noticed we'd played in the Serie B all those years'.
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