The oft ignored Number Ten of Italian football is belatedly making his mark for the Azzurri
Baggio, Totti, Del Piero: The Holy Trinity of Italian Number Tens
Roberto Baggio, Alessandro Del Piero and Francesco Totti. Three 'number tens' whose presence dominated the landscape of the Italian National team from the early 1990s until the late 2000s. Three much celebrated, mercurial talents who were fundamental to their country for the best part of those two decades. Three men who bore the weight of their nation on the shoulders and often carried the teams hopes of success almost single handedly. Three men who scaled the heights for the Azzurri. Baggio dragged Italy through to the 1994 World cup final on his own before his heart breaking penalty miss Pasadena. His was the most glorious failure international football has seen in a major tournament. Del Piero and Totti ultimately went one step further by being involved in the 2006 World cup winning squad and both having significant personal moments of triumph in that tournament on their route to victory. But, over the past decade, one other gifted number ten has always intrigued and promised much over in Italy without ever really convincing or being noticed outside of his homeland. His name is Antonio Cassano.
Despite the wonderful technical ability Cassano possesses, he has never truly become a star of the footballing world outside his own island. Sure, he was good at Roma, he got a move to the worlds most famous club Real Madrid (where his penchant for cake and women took precedent over actually, you know, playing football) and his performances were often majestic at little Sampdoria, but none of this has ever reached the levels of media coverage that his predecessors who wore the famous Italian number ten shirt achieved. Baggio, Totti and Del Piero were mega stars of the footballing world but Cassano has never really threatened to break into their stratosphere.
One main reason for this relative anonymity is that the peak years of his career have not yielded nearly enough caps for his national team, thus restricting his opportunities to demonstrate his talents to a global audience. Even when Cassano has had his fleeting moments of success for the Azzurri, they have been largely forgotten due to circumstances out of his control. On the night of Italy's final group game at Euro 2004, he was his country's outstanding player and scored what seemed like a dramatic last minute goal that everyone thought had earned his team a place in the quarter finals only for Sweden and Denmark to knock the Italians out with a convenient draw in the other group match that took place at the same time. Cassano's celebrations at his late winner against Bulgaria that night turned into dismay as he realised that his efforts had been in vain. Italy went home and his heroics had been rendered irrelevant to the wider world. Later in his career, after his dismal spell in Madrid, Cassano should have been his country's most important player at the 2010 World cup. He had performed splendidly for Sampdoria and was the best attacking player in Italy. However, the then national team manager Marcello Lippi ignored public opinion and refused to even select him in his squad for the tournament. It was not a decision made for 'footballing reasons' as Roy Hodgson would say. Cassano made no secret of his disdain for Lippi while the World cup unfolded, even saying that he wanted the team to win but 'not for Lippi. I say what I think'. While Italy surrendered their World cup crown in the worst possible manner in South Africa, their best player sat at home and probably ate the pastries that he is so fond of with a wry grin on his face as Lippi's team ended the tournament disgraced and embarrassed without a single victory to their name. Cassano's reputation for volatility and instability is cited as the reason for his exclusion from La Nazionale under Lippi and his reputation as a bad boy has cost him an awful lot.
Cassano's form during Euro 2012 has been impressive
With Cassano it has never been a question of talent. His footballing ability is, and always has, been obvious. His temperament however has always been in question. The bust ups with managers, the media outbursts, the lack of application to his trade and his fluctuating weight have all held him back, but now it seems that he has matured enough to finally let his feet do the talking. Italy's current manager Cesare Prandelli has put his trust in the Bari native. Cassano has fought back to fitness in miraculous fashion following his health problems (he underwent heart surgery after a minor stroke earlier in the season) to get himself fit for the Euros, and his manager's faith is currently being repaid in droves. This tournament has allowed Cassano to showcase his talents on the big stage and now, for the first time, he has the chance to perform in the latter stages of an international tournament. After Lippi ignored the in form striker for years because of his attitude, Prandelli has now not only selected Cassano but made him the focal point of his new Italy and given him the opportunity to indelibly stamp his mark on these Championships. Despite some preposterous cries for him to dropped recently after some frankly, very silly comments at a press conference about homosexuals (he obviously still has some maturing to do), Cassano has taken his place in the starting line up in all three of Italy's group games wearing the blue number ten shirt. His performances have merited it. Perhaps he hasn't stood out as much as other flashy forward players like Mesut Ozil or Andres Iniesta, but he has been one of the top performers thus far in Euro 2012. If you've watched all of Italy's games you will know how indispensable he is to their play. If you haven't paid much attention to Italy yet then you probably weren't even that aware of his presence until he scored against the Republic of Ireland last night. Such is Cassano's lot. The BBC and ITV aren't likely to pick him out as a star name while they have the likes of Ronaldo and Rooney to focus on (and lets face it, Alan Shearer probably doesn't even know he exists, such is his knowledge of the world game).
Recent silly remarks to the press haven't affected Cassano's performances
Cassano's performance against the Republic of Ireland was particularly outstanding. For twenty minutes the Italians looked sluggish and startled by the Irish's high pressing game, but it was Cassano who tilted the contest in Italy's favour. He began to retain the ball in the final third for his team and offered a threat to the Irish defenders whenever he got the ball. His eye for a pass was evident as he released Antonio De Natale with a sumptuous through ball moments before he himself gave Italy their crucial lead with a header from a corner that he had won. He again played Di Natale in on goal after a flowing counter attack that he was the key man in during the second half only for Di Natale to be foiled by Shay Given. Despite obviously lacking match fitness and not yet being ready to play a full 90 minutes, Cassano has still been Italy's attacking lynch pin. His clever movement into space off the front man (be it Balotelli or Di Natale) marries up perfectly with his inventiveness. He makes the game look simple and in a lot of ways he is not your typical flamboyant Italian trequartista. He does not quite posses the dribbling skills of Baggio, the goal scoring touch and free kick mastery of Totti or Del Piero but, in Prandelli's side Cassano fits, as Morrissey and Marr once so melodically put it, hand in glove. A through ball here, a flick there, a clever trick to gain a yard of space...none of these things are ever done at break neck speed or with the flair of an Iniesta or the extravagance of a Ronaldo but they are still wonderful to behold due to their effectiveness. Without Cassano knitting their play together in the final third, Italy look slightly ragged and unrefined, but with him they look potent and dangerous.
With a crucial goal now behind him in this tournament to add to three impressive performances, it finally feels like Antonio Cassano is catching fire at the right time for La Nazionale. Italy stand a decent chance of progressing beyond the quarter finals in this tournament and Cassano's form at this time is their main hope of doing so. Cassano is on the verge of becoming an icon on a world wide stage. Given his outrageous talent, it's about bloody time.