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Parma move offers Cassano another chance to reinvent himself

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A 13-year-old kid stands on a football pitch posing for a photograph. He looks a little awkward. Other boys around him are dressed in the full kit of Parma too. ‘Hurry up,’ his body language appears to say. Photos for the family album are so uncool. And yet, a trace of pride is discernible on his face.

You could understand why the person holding the camera wanted to capture this moment. The kid in the picture is Antonio Cassano and he has just finished a trial at Parma. That white shirt with the yellow and blue sleeves is his to keep if he so pleases. The academy’s director Fabrizio Larini has offered him a place within it.

All Parma need is for Cassano’s mother to give her consent and sign off on it. Alas, she refuses. Parma is seven hours away from Bari by car, too far from their home. The thought of being separated from her son is one Mrs Cassano can’t bear. And so little Antonio enters the youth ranks at Bari instead.

Eighteen years later the boy returns to Parma a man. Make that manchild. Three thousand supporters gathered at the Ennio Tardini to welcome Cassano and see him presented with the club’s shirt. He is to wear the No.99: the number of problems Jay-Z rapped about on The Black Album. Parma will be hoping that Cassano ain’t one. Wishful thinking, perhaps.

The scenes at the Tardini were reminiscent of when the club’s former owners, the Tanzi family, unveiled Hristo Stoichkov on more or less the same day in 1995. Signed from Barcelona, he had won the Ballon d’Or only the previous year.

That he flopped really didn’t matter. Getting Stoichkov reflected Parma’s newfound status. In the five years after earning promotion to Serie A for the first time in their history, they had won the Coppa Italia, the Cup Winners’ Cup, European Super Cup and UEFA Cup. From a provincial side, they’d become a powerhouse capable of attracting the best players in the world.

An end to that came in the winter of 2003 when Parmalat, the food conglomerate founded by the Tanzi family, collapsed with a 14bn euro hole in its accounts. It was the biggest corporate fraud in Europe’s history and Parma were almost dragged down with it. For some time they were in real financial trouble.

Stability returned when Tommaso Ghirardi bought the club six years ago. True, Parma dropped into Serie B for a year but they bounced straight back and are a comfortable midtable club run on a modest basis with aspirations of getting back into Europe. To do so, Ghirardi has made no secret over the last couple of years of his wish to sign a big name.

First, he got in touch with his friend Pippo Inzaghi to see if he fancied playing for Parma again. Then when it emerged that Juventus wouldn’t be renewing Alessandro Del Piero’s contract he reached out to him too. Both said: ‘No.’ Ghirardi wasn’t deterred and as Parma prepared to celebrate their centenary this season he became more determined than ever to give the club and its fans “a gift” to mark the occasion.

That gift is Cassano. “We’ve tried to do something extraordinary,” Ghirardi said, “something special.... It’s of great pride to us. A star has chosen to come to Parma. It means that we have worked well these last few years, that we are credible.”

After the transfers of Carlos Tevez to Juventus and Mario Gomez to Fiorentina, this one has been the next highest profile in Italy and perhaps the most discussed. Cassano still holds great fascination. He turned 31 last week, celebrating his birthday while at Parma’s pre-season training camp in Ostuni, the beautiful seaside town in Puglia, the region where he grew up. Such is his appeal that 30 Bari fans travelled the short distance there, congregating outside his hotel to wish him well.

Parma are Cassano’s seventh club. Inter used him as a makeweight in their purchase of half of striker Ishak Belfodil’s rights for 7.5m euro. Once made official, they issued a statement, conspicuous by its warmth, claiming that it had been an honour to have a player like him at the club. It was an amicable divorce then? Not exactly, no.

While Cassano made a point of thanking Inter president Massimo Moratti for everything during his official unveiling as a Parma player, he insisted he wouldn’t be affording their new coach Walter Mazzarri the same courtesy. When asked why, Cassano claimed Mazzarri had forced him out: “Before he was appointed at Inter he told me I was a fixed regular. After he was appointed he told me I could leave.”

Later that day, Mazzarri denied Cassano’s versions of events. “I can’t see how I could have decided who starts and who doesn’t before taking a training session,” a statement read. “I’d like to clarify that the last time I spoke to Cassano was when Napoli played Inter in the first half of last season. On that occasion I only said: ‘Hello’ to him on the pitch.”

It was all very strange. Mazzarri, along with Gigi Delneri, was credited with resurrecting Cassano’s career when they worked with the player following his move from Real Madrid to Sampdoria. Yet it’s also true that their relationship wasn’t an easy one while in Genova.

Remember the Cassanate there? Like when he broke down in tears after receiving a yellow card against Fiorentina because it meant he’d be suspended for the trip to former club Roma in the winter of 2007. Or his strop against Torino in the spring of 2008 when he was sent off towards the end and refused to leave the pitch and then on eventually doing so shouted at the referee from the tunnel that he’d be waiting outside the ground for him.

Mazzarri could perhaps be forgiven for not wanting to deal with that again. Cassano had fallen out with his predecessor Andrea Stramaccioni, a coach who had worked hard to strike up a great relationship with him only for it to blow up in his face at a delicate moment of last season. That’s when Cassano was finished at San Siro.

For many the move to Parma is Cassano’s last chance. It isn’t. He’s already had plenty of those. Journalists were reminded by Cassano that they’d given him up for dead after Real Madrid. “They said then and they still say now that I am old, fat and many other things, but this time I’ll win,” he said. But will he? This does feel symbolic. It’s similar to when he joined Samp for reasons I’ll get to, but it’s different too. He was still young then. Now he’s in his 30s and has had a major health scare. There’s a sense that while Parma might not be his last team, he’ll never play for an elite club again. And as such an overwhelming sense of what might have been prevails.

Even so, maybe it’s for the best. After all, Cassano’s finest years have come away from the bright lights of the big cities. Rather than Rome, Madrid and Milan, he has always given the impression that he is more at home in Bari and particularly Genova. There, the little man can be the big man and life is quieter, more tranquil. Parma is the same.

Reunited with Roberto Donadoni at the Tardini, the pair have got on well in the past. You might say Cassano owes him one. Never trusted by Marcello Lippi, it was Donadoni who brought him back in from the cold while in charge of Italy. Sacked after Euro 2008 and replaced by Lippi, Cassano was once again exiled from the set up and wouldn’t be brought back again until Cesare Prandelli got the job after the 2010 World Cup and made him central to his plans. Since Euro 2012, however, Cassano has been out of the frame and needs to prove himself yet again.

“It all depends on him,” Donadoni said. “He knows very well how many chances he has wasted. He has what it takes to win his place in the Italy team back and go to the World Cup. Prandelli counts on many different strikers, who are all deserving of their call ups, but Cassano isn’t inferior to the competition.”

Whether he keeps himself in check and makes it to Brazil or not next summer remains to be seen. Cassano revealed how Parma’s director of sport Pietro Leonardi has promised to give him “a slap or two” if he throws one of his tantrums. He won’t guarantee anything. “I have never made any promises in my life,” he insisted. “I prefer facts.”

Here’s one then. When Cassano was unveiled at Milan, he said: “If I’m not able to succeed here, I should be locked up in a madhouse.” To be fair to him, he did come in and help them win the Scudetto before suffering a career and life-threatening stroke the following season. But was he a success at Milan? His time there ended acrimoniously too, as he launched an attack on their chief executive Adriano Galliani claiming certain promises hadn’t been kept.

With him, wrote Il Corriere della Sera’s Alberto Costa, it’s always someone else’s fault. That’s not entirely true. Cassano, as Donadoni points out, is aware that he’s made mistakes. “I have realised 30 per cent of my potential... 40 per cent at maximum,” he said. “And it’s my fault. At 31, I’d be satisfied with doubling that, getting to 70 or 80 per cent.”

Reflecting on Cassano’s career, La Gazzetta dello Sport’s Andrea Schianchi likened it to Antoni Gaudi’s la Sagrada Familia, Barcelona’s splendid cathedral. “Splendid but incomplete: Genius in its conception, revolutionary as a project, but always a work in progress and under construction nonetheless.” Destined to be left unfinished. Unrealised.

“At times I ask myself: where would I have played if I’d had a head on my shoulders?” Cassano asked. He answered his own question himself with another one. “On the moon by myself?” On his day, he certainly can be out of this world. Parma will be satisfied, though, if he just gets them into Europe.

James Horncastle will be blogging for us on all matters Serie A throughout the season. He contributes to the Guardian, FourFourTwo, The Blizzard and Champions magazine amongst others.

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