Italy unites behind stricken Gattuso and Cassano

These are difficult times in Italy. The government’s debt is front-page news across the world. It is now the second highest in the Eurozone, and borrowing is naturally becoming more expensive.

By one study’s reckoning unemployment has risen to 8.3 per cent and domestic inflation has hit its highest level in three years. There is a palpable sense of vulnerability about the country and few places remain for the people to seek refuge from the depressing headlines.

Sport is where most of them look to for an escape. But even that is providing little succour at the moment. Thousands were shocked and profoundly moved by the tragic death of the rising star of Moto GP, Marco Simoncelli, after an accident at the Malaysia Grand Prix on October 23. Later that day, his face featured on the big screens of Italy’s football grounds. A minute’s silence was held and black armbands were worn in commemoration of his life. Everybody hurt.

It was in this sobering context with a red and black shirt bearing Simoncelli’s name draped out in front of him that the Milan midfielder Rino Gattuso held a press conference on a rainy afternoon to reveal that the sixth cranial nerve of his left eye was paralysed and the muscle linked to it was no longer working. A clash with teammate Alessandro Nesta during the opening match of the season against Lazio had worsened an existing problem with his sight.

Present at San Siro on match days with the left lens of his designer glasses covered with a bandage, Gattuso has not played since and at first feared that the affliction not only threatened his career but his life too. “I really thought the worst,” he said. “When they put you in the CAT scan cylinder and you’re afraid you have a tumour, your thoughts go to your little kids. Now I know that that kind of ‘worst’ has been excluded so, despite everything, I can let out a big sigh of relief.”

Gattuso will be out for at least four months. He remains hopeful the nerve will start to function normally again of its own accord but for now the World Cup winner can only wait before considering an operation. “I fight against an invisible man,” he added. “Every morning when I wake up I open the healthy eye first then the sick one and I say to myself: ‘We’re still where we were.

“Before I saw triple and now double, so I am improving a little. Football is no longer the central part of my thoughts. Now every day life is more important: it’s awful not being able to take the kids to school, not being able to drive. I find it hard to watch the TV and also to write an email on the PC: I see objects in one place while in reality they are in another. If you are not strong mentally, it’s very tough.”

Keeping his spirits up at Milanello with his jokes and high jinks was Antonio Cassano. Now it’s the condition of the latter that is of deep concern to a nation. Late on Saturday night as the Milan players were disembarking a charter flight home from the capital where they had inflicted a 3-2 defeat on Roma, Cassano reportedly felt feint and was lent up against the bus that was due to take them to the terminal at Malpensa.

There were claims that his vision became blurry, and that he developed problems with his speech and movement. In the early hours of Sunday morning, Cassano was taken to the Pronto Soccorso hospital by Milan’s medical staff where it’s said he underwent tests on his blood and heart. He was then transferred to the neurology department at the Policlinico di Milano for further examination.

The Italian news agency ANSA reported last night that the initial diagnosis was a transient ischemic attack or mini-stroke. Milan reacted by releasing a statement to the effect that it was “hypothetical” and “cannot possibly be verified as they are from neither the club’s medical staff, nor the doctors at the Policlinico di Milano who are caring for him.”

As of yet there is no official diagnosis, and nor should one necessarily be issued. Cassano may be a public figure, but he is also a patient and has a right to privacy and confidentiality. What was apparent from the tears in the eyes of his mother Giovanna and the distress on the face of his wife Carolina yesterday is that even if Cassano’s condition is said to be improving, he has had a real fright.

Unsurprisingly, messages of support for the jovial playmaker haven’t been lacking. Roma captain Francesco Totti even wrote on his blog: “Antonio, hurry up and get out of that hospital because I’m sure the doctors and nurses can’t take any more of you and your jokes.” Ronaldo tweeted: “Forza Cassano.”

It’s too early to speculate exactly what the future holds. Some already have done, of course, suggesting that if Cassano has in fact suffered a transient ischemic attack then as long as the source of it is discovered and removed he will in theory be able to play again. For now, however, the most important thing is that he puts his health first and football second. That goes for Gattuso too.

For what their examples show is that for all our efforts to put them on a pedestal and regard them as untouchable, they are really just human and mortal like us.

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