Italy disappointed by new Antonio Cassano
Italy had waited 15 years for this moment. Ever since Antonio Cassano first burst onto the scene with a spectacular goal on his first professional start, taming a 40-yard pass on his heel before ghosting between two Inter defenders and wrong-footing the goalkeeper, his nation had dreamed of seeing him represent them at a World Cup.
Time and again they had been disappointed. Cassano was deemed too young to go to Japan and South Korea in 2002; too raw even though Roma had paid $22 million to sign him from Bari 12 months earlier. By the time the next World Cup rolled around in 2006, he was six months into his ill-fated Spanish sojourn, out of form and increasingly out of shape at Real Madrid.
Few people criticised coach Marcello Lippi for leaving him out that year, and even fewer would do so with hindsight -- after the Azzurri lifted the World Cup in Berlin. But the manager might never be forgiven for his refusal to consider Cassano in 2010. The forward was coming off two strong seasons at Sampdoria, and could only have improved a side that crashed out tamely in the group stage.
Cesare Prandelli, succeeding Lippi in the wake of that tournament, made a point of naming Cassano in his very first starting XI. For the next two years he would build his side around the player, pairing him with Mario Balotelli up front as the Azzurri made an unexpected run to the final of Euro 2012.
But even Prandelli seemed to abandon Cassano after that, deciding that now was the time to give fresh talent a chance. The forward did not make another appearance for Italy until May of this year. A surprise inclusion in Prandelli's initial 30-man World Cup squad, he came off the bench in the warm-up game against Ireland, but was still considered a long shot to make the plane for Brazil.
However, that is exactly what he did, seizing his place at the expense of the not-yet-fit Giuseppe Rossi. Cassano had earned his spot with a fine season at Parma, his 12 goals and six assists helping the Ducali to achieve a surprising sixth-place finish.
Still, Cassano's role in the squad was not entirely clear. A master of ball retention and hold-up play, he seemed like an obvious choice for Italy to introduce as a second-half substitute against England, as his team clung on to a 2-1 lead. But when Prandelli went to replace Mario Balotelli in the 73rd minute, he sent on Ciro Immobile instead.
Pundits concluded that Cassano had fallen behind his younger colleague in the pecking order, and that he was only really there to make up the numbers. But then, on Friday, he finally got his chance. With Italy trailing Costa Rica 1-0 at half-time, Prandelli sent on Cassano in place of midfielder Thiago Motta.
The stage was set for something special; for Italy's lost talent to show his nation what they had been missing all these years. But that something never arrived. Instead, Cassano's long-awaited World Cup debut turned out to be nothing more than a damp squib.
Moving into the space behind Balotelli, he was supposed to help bridge the gap between midfield and attack in the No. 10 role, but ultimately only disrupted that link even further. With Costa Rica retaining an extremely compact shape and pressing aggressively on the ball, Cassano could not find any space between the lines and wound up dropping into areas that were already occupied by his teammates.
Italy's best chances of the first half had arrived when Andrea Pirlo exploited Costa Rica's high line, sending chipped passes over the top of their defence. But the midfielder found himself squeezed together with Cassano, each cramping the other's style. As columnist Alessandro Vocalelli asked in La Repubblica: "Can it be a coincidence that Pirlo provided three splendid balls in the first half, but not even one in the second?"
Gazzetta dello Sport gave Cassano just a four out of 10 in their player ratings. Their writer Sebastiano Vernazza described him as "limping and wheezing, with every ball half way to a blunder. Every time he took the wrong option, his passes sent behind their intended targets or nowhere near them at all."
It was a stark contrast to the words written about Cassano in the days leading up to the game. Reporters had been impressed with his behaviour at this World Cup, with many noting that there had been no sign of any meltdowns -- the infamous "Cassanate," which has included blazing rows, tantrums and outbursts -- that have plagued his career. Cassano had been calm, sedate even, enjoying the company of his wife and children on the beach and following his coaches' instructions during training.
But perhaps that, too, is part of the problem. As Italy laboured to break down Costa Rica's defence in the second half on Friday, what they needed most of all was some invention, some unpredictability, some way of surprising their opponents. They needed a player with the arrogance to think outside his team's failing tactical schemes and the skill to make something else work instead.
What they needed was the Cassano that Italian managers overlooked in years gone by, the one who always seemed to be more trouble than he was worth. The one who would attempt something as absurd as a volleyed back-heel nutmeg, and somehow even manage to pull it off. The one who was naive enough as a 17-year-old kid to believe that he could control a 40-yard pass on his heel and beat Inter's defence single-handed. The one who made Italians dream of seeing him at a World Cup in the first place.