Antonio Cassano is known in Italy as Il Gioiello di Bari Vecchia – The Jewel of Old Bari – but has quickly become the face of a new-look Parma. His summer transfer was a major surprise: just a year after arriving at boyhood favourites Inter, it meant he passed up the chance to be reunited with his former Sampdoria boss Walter Mazzarri.
The temperamental forward played perhaps the best football of his career with the Genovese side between 2007 and 2011: his 41 goals and 38 assists in 115 appearances helped Samp into the Champions League play-offs. The temperamental and insecure Cassano, who had continually acted out in Rome and Madrid, became a thing of the past there as he met and married Carolina Marcialis.
Before that, ‘FantAntonio’ was more famous for his childish outbursts than his on-field production. Fabio Capello, his Roma coach from 2001 to 2004, called these episodes Cassanata: each seemed to top the last as the player destroyed almost every relationship he had in the game.
Cassano had a huge argument with Capello during training, and was then sent off during a match with Milan, which he punctuated by flashing a gesture at the referee. Sold by Roma (post-Capello) after a row over his contract, he went to Real Madrid for just €5 million in January 2006. An impressive start was soon forgotten; within four months, amid rumours of poor diet, they were fining him for every gram over his target weight.
Capello arrived in Madrid that summer and it took just two months before Cassano exploded again, arguing with the coach, earning a suspension and eventually a demotion to training with the youth squads. By the summer he was on the move again, this time on loan to Sampdoria.
Capello and Cassano: loved a squabble
Another great start seemed to falter when he was sent off against Torino, throwing his shirt at the referee as he left the field. Il Doria still had faith, making his transfer permanent that June and making him vice-captain.
Then the following January came the arrival of Giampaolo Pazzini. The two men formed Serie A's best strike duo in many years, drawing comparisons with the Gianluca Vialli-Roberto Mancini partnership that secured Sampdoria's sole Scudetto in 1991. But the new ‘goal twins’ soon moved on, and Cassano once again failed to succeed at a bigger club.
Just eight goals in two seasons with Milan were followed by just five in a season across town at Inter. By last summer, the Nerazzurri were happy to send him to Parma in exchange for the unheralded Ishak Belfodil. While the Algerian international has struggled – making just one start before being shipped off to Livorno last month – Cassano has once again shone bright.
Perky at Parma
Around 3,000 people turned up to welcome him on the day he signed for Parma, prompting a huge increase in enthusiasm and season ticket sales. “Other teams must envy us,” said the club’s director of sport Pietro Leonardi as he presented the player to the press.
His resurgence is similar to that of Roberto Baggio who, after falling out with Marcello Lippi at Juventus, had two-year spells at both Milan clubs, scoring just 12 league goals for each. Like Cassano, the ponytailed genius thrived in the provinces, netting 22 goals in a single season at Bologna (between Milan and Inter) and 45 in 95 games for Brescia at the end of his career.
Cassano's seven goals and five assists for Parma have played a vital role in his new club’s rise to seventh place, a major achievement for a side usually more worried about relegation than hopeful about Europe: the Ducali are far removed from the team which lifted two UEFA Cups thanks to players like Fabio Cannavaro, Gigi Buffon and Gianfranco Zola.
Cassano was a popular capture for Parma fans
No longer able to buy the biggest names, Parma have begun turning those discarded by others into accomplished campaigners. Roberto Donadoni’s side haven't lost in 11 since an early-November defeat to the rampant Juventus; the run includes victory over Napoli and impressive draws against Inter and Lazio.
They have only lost at home to Juve and Roma, and boast the league’s fourth-best defensive record behind the top two and Fiorentina. That success has been aided by the coach’s insistence that his side learn to play two formations, switching effortlessly from 3-5-2 against tougher opponents to 4-3-3 in matches they should win.
Cassano is vital to both systems, playing just off Amauri in the former and wide left in the latter. At times his play has been inspired. He leads Serie A with an average of 2.7 key passes per game, while only Andrea Pirlo can match his seven completed through balls this term. Cassano ranks third – behind only Andrea Cossu and Alessandro Diamanti – in terms of completed crosses, delivering some of the exquisite passes for which he is famous.
He saved one of his best performances for the visit of his former club Milan, scoring the winner and creating several chances for his team-mates. Completing 20 of 25 attempts in the attacking third, the 31-year-old was simply continuing the excellent form he had shown earlier in the month, when he'd created two before scoring himself in a 3-1 win against Sassuolo.
“He’s among the best players in the world at passing the ball,” Milan’s soon-to-be-fired coach Massimiliano Allegri would say. "There are few like him.” For all Cassano's faults, it is impossible to argue.