Antonio Cassano: Gluttony, girls and goals

Antonio Cassano's loves are food, sex and football – and they all get him into trouble. But England ignore him at their peril

The veteran Dutch coach Clemens Westerhof once said that his problem with players having sex the night before matches was not the act itself but the "staying up all night looking for it" as it "tires out young players". For Antonio Cassano, who will lead the Italian attack against England tomorrow, the detrimental impact of satisfying his carnal desires was born of a different problem.

Cassano memorably recalled in his autobiography, Telling Everything: "In Madrid I had a friend who was a hotel waiter. His job was to bring me three or four pastries after I had sex. He would bring the pastries up the stairs, I would escort the woman to him and we would make an exchange: he would take the girl and I would take the pastries. Sex and then food, a perfect night."

Given that Cassano claimed in 2008 to have slept with more than 600 women, that is a lot of pastries. By the time he had been in Spain six months, he had weight problems severe enough for the club to fine him for every gram he was overweight.

Though married in 2010, and now a father, Cassano, who has boasted that in retirement he will eat until he is obese, continues to struggle with the scales. Returning to Milan for pre-season last summer, he was ordered by the club's CEO Adriano Galliani to lose weight, with the threat of him being moved out if he did not. But his waistline is not why the striker is yet to play 90 minutes in Euro 2012. The reason he lacks stamina is more serious: in late October he suffered a stroke that resulted in surgery to correct a heart defect.

Incredibly, he returned to Serie A in April. He scored in his first match back and his subsequent form was enough to convince Cesare Prandelli not only to select Cassano for Euro 2012, but to make him the main striker. He has rewarded the coach by creating even more chances than Andrea Pirlo, and scoring the goal that broke the deadlock against the Republic of Ireland.

This tournament could come to define the mercurial Cassano, a player whose talent has long been recognised, but whose refusal to submit to the team ethic had hindered his success. Fabio Capello, who managed him at Roma and Madrid, created the term Cassanata to describe behaviour that disrupted the team unit, a word that has since been used in Italy to describe similar acts by other players, most recently Cassano's current strike partner Mario Balotelli.

Like Balotelli, who was fostered as a three-year-old, Cassano's background was difficult. His father abandoned his mother early on, leaving her to support her infant son through two jobs amid occasional brushes with the law. They lived in Bari's "old town", long before that part of the southern Italian port began the process of gentrification, and Cassano has said that had he not been a footballer he would have been a criminal. His talent rescued him from the streets and he was playing for his hometown club in Serie A by the time he was 17. Two years later Capello signed him for then-champions Roma for €30m.

The pair were to have a tempestuous relationship. Olivier Dacourt, the former Leeds and Everton player who was with them at Roma, has described it as father-son "tough love". Cassano rowed with referees and team-mates, but mostly with Capello. "Anarchy is always just around the corner with Cassano," said Capello. But talent gets indulged and other players thought Capello tolerated behaviour from Cassano he would not have accepted from them.

Cassano eventually delivered, combining with Francesco Totti to help Roma to second in 2004 and winning himself a place at Euro 2004. He scored twice but Italy failed to qualify from the group stages, Marcello Lippi replaced Giovanni Trapattoni, and Cassano soon fell from favour. When Italy won the World Cup in 2006 he was watching from afar.

By then Cassano was playing for Real Madrid, and pushing Capello too far. He was overweight, under-performing and challenging Capello's authority including, memorably, in a training-ground impersonation caught by TV. As his weight ballooned, he was lampooned as a sweet-eating fatty. Unable to sell or loan him, Capello banished him from the squad, which led to Cassano training with David Beckham during the Englishman's own isolation.

While Beckham got back into Real's team before heading for America, Cassano found sanctuary with Sampdoria, who took him back to Italy in 2007, initially on loan (with Real paying the bulk of his €4.2m salary).

For three years the relationship flourished, even though his international career, which had resumed in time for Euro 2008, was put on hold for two years when Lippi returned. Prandelli's appointment, and Cassano's form, meant a recall and in September 2010 he scored his first goals for Italy since Euro 2004. All seemed well, barring the occasional rant at referees. Then he pressed the self-destruct button again.

A minor dispute following Cassano's failure to appear at an awards ceremony escalated after a blazing row with Sampdoria president Riccardo Garrone and the club decided to sack him. A tribunal prevented that, but he was shipped out, to Milan.

The incident seemed to confirm his self-assessment: "Don't be impulsive. Be like me. Before exploding, always count at least to one."

Garrone said sadly: "Antonio is a good and generous person, but when he loses his temper he really cannot control himself. Antonio improved so much with us and had become almost normal, if you can even use that term."

This does, though, seem an isolated lapse, even if this month's outbursts hoping there are no gay players in the Azzurri suggest that the old Cassano will never be far away. In August he even captained Italy, Gianluigi Buffon stepping aside in his honour as the match – against Spain – was in Bari. Buffon said: "Not even Cassano knows the value he brings to this team on the pitch and in the dressing-room."

What Cassano brings on the pitch is an appreciation of the movement and positions of team-mates and opponents so acute it is as if he is watching the game from one of those overhead cameras which have been a feature of Euro 2012. Allied to that is the ability to take the right passing decision. What he does not bring is a prolific goalscoring record. He averages a goal every three and a half games but with Milan he has scored eight in 40 appearances. With Italy he has scored 10 goals in 32 caps, but the six since his 2010 recall have come against Estonia, Faroe Islands, Northern Ireland and, on Monday, the Republic of Ireland.

Cassano's record at Milan reflects his struggle to cement a starting place against strong competition from the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Robinho, but he has remained in Prandelli's plans despite that and his heart problem and is repaying the coach's faith.

Cassano will be 30 next month. This may thus be his last chance to make the mark on the game that his talent always indicated he would. England will hope it proves another missed opportunity.

The Cassano Crimesheet

May 2003

Playing for Roma, Cassano is dismissed in the Coppa Italia final against Milan for dissent. He made a horn sign to the referee as he departed the field.

April 2006

After moving to Real Madrid, Cassano's weight problems meant he was fined for every gram he was overweight. Clashed with manager Fabio Capello.

March 2008

Loaned to Sampdoria, Cassano threw his shirt at the referee after being sent off against Torino, earning a five-match suspension.

October 2010

Fell out with the Sampdoria president, Riccardo Garrone, after refusing to attend an awards ceremony.

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