This feature is part of Virtuoso
He burst onto the scene with the sort of gusto that only the greats have ever been capable of. He was quick, intelligent, two-footed and oh-so gifted. For many, he was the new Francesco Totti, a fantasista of extraordinary powers. A little less smooth, sure, but undoubtedly capable. It was ironic, then, that Antonio Cassano’s career would slowly begin to unravel when he joined the prince of Rome at the Stadio Olimpico in 2001.
What would follow were several years of high-profile bust-ups, a failed stint at Real Madrid, inconsistency at club and international level, but fleeting glimpses of his sumptuous talent. Off the pitch, things were no calmer. Cassano has been accused of a sex and drug addiction and ballooned in size over the course of his career.
All of that, however, seemed a world – an unlikely world – away in 1999 as the 17-year-old made his way into the Bari first team. He’d been a prodigy from a young age, scoring and creating consistently for local teams before being snapped up at 15 by Bari. He was brash, bold and supremely confident. All of that would manifest itself in extraordinary ways in December 1999. With many looking ahead to the new millennium, some chose to stay put, enamoured by this rare talent.
Having made his Bari debut in a derby defeat against Lecce on 11 December, he’d need to wait only a further week before he’d take to the pitch again. It was a game that would change his life.
The Bari team at the time was adorned with experienced campaigners and young talents, like Cassano, Daniel Andersson, Matteo Ferrari and Simone Perrotta. They were pushing hard for European football, and while they’d eventually finish a lowly 14th, on 18 December, as they welcomed Internazionale to the Stadio San Nicola, anything seemed possible.
As the two teams entered what is now an iconic stadium, purpose-built for Italia 90, Cassano looked across at his famed opponents. There he saw World Cup winner Laurent Blanc, Javier Zanetti, Iván Zamorano, Christian Vieri and manager Marcello Lippi. He didn’t care. He was Antonio Cassano; the fear should’ve been of him.
After another of Bari’s emerging talents, 18-year-old Nigerian Hugo Enyinnaya, gave i Galletti the lead in the seventh minute. Starting up front alongside Cassano, Enyinnaya, who would go on to record a modest playing career, would score a goal that, on any other day, would be talked about for years, lobbing Angelo Peruzzi from 30 yards with pace and dip. It was another sign that Bari’s young stars were marching to the top.
Typically, and rather unsurprisingly, Vieri, a £32m addition from Lazio that summer, levelled the scores after strike partner Zamorano cut back to him in the box. With the momentum swinging Inter’s way, Lippi urged his players to focus, keep the ball, and play through Bari’s rigid block.
It amounted to little over the next 75 minutes as the teams cancelled each other out. While Álvaro Recoba and Roberto Baggio would enter the fray in the hope of conjuring up some of their magic, it would be the man christened the “new Baggio” after this game who took matters into his own hands.
In the 88th minute, on the wet, muddy San Nicola turf, Daniel Andersson sends a long ball Cassano’s way, who’s just beyond the halfway line and running towards the Inter goal. Without breaking stride, the 17-year-old control it with his heel, touching it forward slightly so his second touch, with his head, can push it further. It’s a level of control that few are ever blessed with.
Surrounded by two of the game’s very best defenders in Laurent Blanc and Christian Panucci, Cassano drives towards Fabrizio Ferron, entering the box with only one intention. Cutting inside to bring the ball onto his favoured right foot, he jinks between the two internationals so he’s got space to measure a shot past the despairing Ferron. It’s a goal of outstanding skill, especially for a 17-year-old in just his second league outing.
As the stadium erupts, perhaps louder than ever before in its nine-year history, Cassano sprints across the running track to the home fans, where he’s mobbed by photographers, ball boys and stadium staff, all eager to congratulate their prodigy.
The Italian papers would laud Cassano the next day, with La Gazzetta dello Sport claiming that he would be the next fantasista of the Azzurri. Rather appropriately, his nickname would quickly become Fantantonio. Other would declare him “the future” while Lippi was unreserved in his praise for the youngster, stating in his post-match press conference: “That goal is not normal. We must appreciate it.”
Despite Bari’s slump in the second half of the season and Cassano scoring just six Serie A goals in 48 appearances over the coming 18 months, when Bari were relegated in 2001, he joined Fabio Capello’s Scudetto winners as a 19-year-old for a whopping £25m, spurning the advances of Juventus.
While his career is broadly summed up as a waste of talent, for one day in December 1999, Antonio Cassano faced the world’s best and shot them down, scoring a goal that even the greats could only dream of. Indeed, for one day only, he had the best touch, the quickest feet and the deadliest shot in world football.
By Omar Saleem @omar_saleem
Edited by Will Sharp @shillwarp