On 12 February 2003, at 17 years and 111 days, Wayne Rooney became the youngest player ever capped by England.
It was not a terribly auspicious beginning: a 3-1 defeat by Australia at Upton Park. That same night, in Genoa, another short, bustling forward made a rather better start to his international career. Fabrizio Miccoli was able to claim an assist for the only goal after his shot was parried by the Portugal keeper. But Miccoli would only make nine more appearances for the Azzurri, who blooded a rookie of similar ilk that November in Warsaw. Antonio Cassano scored Italy’s only goal in a 3-1 defeat, and while Miccoli did come off the bench in the second half, Giovanni Trapattoni only gave them around 20 minutes together before replacing Cassano with the aerial threat of Fabio Bazzani.
During the decade since, Barcelona and Spain have given unprecedented kudos to a diminutive attack. At times, centre- forwards like the 6ft 1in Bazzani have lumbered along the margins like sauropods among the withering vegetation of their apocalypse. In the meantime, Miccoli,and Cassano have – at various stages, and in varying degrees – seemed to absorb some of that obsolete bulk as though in token of their failure to become true Napoleons of this revolution.
There all points of comparison end. Now, for very different reasons, all three of these big little guys find themselves at a crossroads. If Rooney, at 27, feels at all insulted by the comparison – Cassano is 30, and Miccoli 34 – then it is not as if the Italians are yesterday’s men. Only last summer Cassano started the final of the European Championship, less than a year after his career was menaced by a form of stroke. Miccoli, meanwhile, sealed his talismanic status at Palermo by completing a hat-trick against Chievo in September with a volley from beside the centre circle.
Both, however, have grossly misunderstood their privileges and obligations as celebrated athletes. As a result, Cassano now admits that he has long since squandered any chance of true fulfilment – and Miccoli, after six years in Palermo, finds himself banished in disgrace.
This week the Sicilian hill town of Corleone, at pains to shed a notoriety amplified by The Godfather, revoked Miccoli’s honorary citizenship after he was apparently recorded desecrating Giovanni Falcone, the anti-Mafia crusader murdered in 1992, as “filth”. Aside from his association with a Mob family, Miccoli is under investigation for alleged extortion. A few days ago he gave a tearful press conference. “I am a footballer, not a Mafioso,” he insisted. “I am against the beliefs of the Mafia. I ask forgiveness of the city of Palermo.”
The club’s president, Maurizio Zamparini, acknowledges that footballers in the south can form friendships without knowing quite who they are dealing with. (Miccoli’s similarly podgy idol, Maradona, was himself once mixed up with the Neapolitan underworld.) But Zamparini has nonetheless declined to renew Miccoli’s contract with a club relegated after five changes of manager last season.
Cassano’s fall from grace is nothing like so giddy. But this week he was discarded by Internazionale after one season, reflecting bitterly on his treatment by the coaches there – including the incoming Walter Mazzarri, under whom he once blossomed at Sampdoria. Everything will be different at his new club, of course. Cassano hopes to end his career at Parma and, with a World Cup looming, his contract even stipulates a bonus should he be recalled to the Azzurri. Even as he was introduced at Parma, however, he contrived the following rebuke to Inter: “Everyone must be aware that when you have Antonio it is for better or worse. Throughout my career, I have achieved 30 to 40 per cent of what I was capable of.”
The same computation can hardly apply to the 600 to 700 women Cassano claims to have bedded, despite that scrofulous complexion, in his younger days. At Madrid, he paid a bellhop to bring him three pastries after sex: “He would hand me the pastries, I would hand him the girl, and he’d return her into the night. Sex plus pastries – could it be any better?”
Though his professional renaissance coincided with marriage and fatherhood, you wonder how sensible it was of Roberto Donadoni, his new coach, to tell Cassano: “Here you live well and think big.” They should sooner recall Cary Grant’s conversation with his secretary in North By Northwest: “Say, do I look heavyish to you? I feel heavyish. Put a note on my desk in the morning: ‘Think Thin’.”
As he contemplates his next step, a similar memo might yet help Rooney avoid lean years of his own. He presumably views Ryan Giggs’ longevity as being as much a matter of metabolism as professionalism. But while Cassano and Miccoli retain the nimblest of feet, it has always helped when they can actually see them.