“Il Gioiello di Bari Vecchia”
This story as the title suggests begins in the Southern Italian city of Bari and in particular the San Nicola district of Bari Vecchia. This is where the subject of this article was born and raised, playing football amongst the cobbled streets and gaining that ever so present ability to dribble with the Calcio.
Like so many of the worlds most skillful footballers it would appear that the early nurturing of talents is almost definitely born from the ability to play street football, I name Maradona, Ronaldinho and Messi as a few.
However, the subject of this story honed his undeniable talents and artistry in the Bari Vecchia playing football for money in a southern Italian Mafia surroundings to support his mother and family. Amongst the organised crime and gambling “Cassano” honed the art of playing Calcio.
Cassano “I Played on the streets, in the alleyways, I’d play for whoever gave me the most money – That 4000-5000 Lire was used to help the family”.
December 18th 1999.
Having spent the small part of his young career in the Bari youth set up Cassano had now transferred his talents into the first team squad. A teenager with youth and exuberance on his side now faced the prospect of opposing the mighty Internazionale Milano.
A team not only flush with international superstars like Zanetti, Dino Baggio and Christian Vieri the latter mentioned having broken the world record transfer fee of 28 million pounds from Lazio, this team more poignantly also accommodated the experienced and impenetrable duo of Laurent Blanc and Christian Panucci at the heart of the Inter defense, but more to come later from these two “Catenaccio”.
As for now the stage was set in what was considered to be a routine victory for the team from Milan. Heavy investment in the squad and a collective mix of experience and sheer talent meant that the Milano giants fully expected victory along with their following army of supporters all clad in the famous “I Nerazzurri” striped kit.
The young boy from the Bari Vecchio was placed into the starting 11 for the event hosted at the delightful and colossus San Nicola Stadium.
In very recent performances the young Cassano had shown glimpses of his raw talent that was honed on the cobbled streets a mere stones throw from the now rumbling and excitedly anticipated crowds bursting from the stands at the San Nicola Stadium.
So, the game begun on a wet night in the San Nicola Staduim and proceeded quickly with another Bari academy player Eniynnaya scoring what would have been a show stopping moment for the young players career, had Cassano not intervened.
Eniynnaya’s sweeping, accurate half volley really was a sight to behold catching the Inter goalkeeper off his line from 30 yards and made all the more spectacular by Peruzzi’s despairingly lunging dive.
None the less this was the perfect start for a Bari team exuberant with youth.
Inter Milan soon pulled the game level, a dangerous ball into the box fell to the even more menacing Christian Vieri, his initial effort rebounded to the Chilean Zamorano who guided the ball back across the box for a sweeping and sliding finish into the roof of the Bari net from Vieri.
The San Nicola crowd could be excused for believing that time would only tell before the monster of football that was Inter Milan hauled the game further into their grasp. However, Divine Intervention, The Hand of God or whatever footballing fairytale you believe in had other ideas.
A lumped pass forward? or a searching masterstroke? A young Simone Perrotta found an isolated Cassano on the left hand side of the pitch as the stadium clock struck 88 minutes…
Now here is where the poetry begins.
As the lofted ball begun to make its way back down to earth the 17 year old Cassano begun to make strides towards the Inter Milan goal. The ball edging closer and closer to the Red and White kit baring the number 18. It was at this point that an “Allure of Genius” begun to evolve before the very eyes of the supporting Bari Curva Nord.
A deft touch that could be described as artistry but is better summed up as sheer youthful instinct was Cassano controlling the ball with his back heel forcing the momentum of the ball to lift onto his head and thus gently coaxing the Calcio into his stride.
A Gauntlet appeared before the fearless Cassano in the form of “un muro di mattoni” or in other words Laurent Blanc and Christian Panucci. Both experienced defenders appeared to almost stare down at the now on rushing Cassano, his baggy shirt blustering like a Bari sailboat heading for the nearby “Porto di Bari”.
The Inter Milan penalty box loomed.
Cassano cut in from the left and avoided contact with a hovering Blanc, he now found time and space inside the penalty box. Panucci was sold the same fate as Blanc and both defenders had now rushed past the 17 year old boy from Bari Vecchia…
With the world at his feet, one strike would change Cassano’s life forever.
…Now with only Fabrizio Ferron to beat in the Inter Milan goal “Il Gioiello di Bari Vecchia” buried his right footed shot emphatically into the left hand corner of the net sparking sheer mayhem from the on watching Bari Curva Nord.
From the moment he jumped the advertising boards and succumbed to his new jubilant public celebrating a match-winning goal, Antonio Cassano was now a sporting name that the footballing world would come to love, cherish and admire for his footballing talents.
“Il Gioiello di Bari Vecchia” was born…
The other side to Cassano is for another story all-together.