Wednesday, June 23, 2004
Wherefore art though, Antonio?
Just for a second last night Antonio Cassano was the most romantic hero since… well, not Romeo, because Cassano really did think he’d got the girl and Romeo knew he would never be allowed. Not for Cassano the doomed conceit of the tragic death; he was fighting until the last, he would not bow down and sip of wormwood or mercury or strychnine. Don Quixote then? Quixote who thought windmills were giants, a barber’s basin for his helmet, fighting a doomed fight because of his delirium, unaware that there was no fight at all beyond the one in his imagination, in which he was the honourable, romantic champion, victorious and glorious. Let us not forget that this is Antonio Cassano we’re talking about, who was born on the day Italy lifted the World Cup in 1982, who is destined to lift it himself, who has fallen out with Fabio Capello because Capello refused to agree that Cassano was “greater than Maradona”. Cassano is given to flights of fancy. And yet… and yet…
Trapattoni has been Italy’s coach for four years, has had the best school of players from which to draw his team since 1982, and at no time has known his best XI. Sven may have his detractors, may make use of stupid substitutions during friendly games, but he knows the value of establishing a strong central unit of players, who know each other and are confident of their roles. (OK so he should have taken Defoe and Barry, but you can’t have everything…) Trapattoni promised two years ago that Italy would begin to play attractive, free-flowing, adventurous football. Apart from the opening 60 minutes against Sweden last week, they have failed to do so during this tournament, and that has been their undoing.
Time and again teams have been punished for erring on the side of conservatism after taking the lead. The Dutch, the Spanish, the Italians against Sweden, us against the French, the Germans against the Dutch. As demonstrated in the England / Croatia match, the way to win games is to finish teams off, to not let go of momentum, to keep on attacking until you have hammered them back and demoralised them. The Italians are in possession of so much attacking verve and flair and yet they refuse to play to it. Had they kept attacking against the Swedes instead of reverting to type, they would have won. The best way to defend a lead is to keep increasing it.
Unaware of the equalising goal fifty miles away, Cassano last night experienced, in the space of seven seconds, the most joyous and then the most dreadful moments of his short career. He had rattled the bar and seen the rebound turned in. He had demonstrated exquisite touch and guile to win a penalty only to see it denied by a myopic official. He had, tired mentally and physically beyond measure, been unable to do more than pass the ball into the keeper’s hands when, had he not had the weight of a nation’s expectation (and it is not ‘hope’ with Italy, it is ‘expect’), he might have mustered more strength and stung the back of the net on two, three, more occasions. Where Vieri failed, Totti flustered, Corradi vanished, Di Vaio pitter-pattered and Del Piero flattered but did not deceive, Cassano stood up like a man and took responsibility. Sadly, only Buffon, Zambrotta, Cannavaro and Gattuso from the rest of the squad looked capable of doing the same, and the latter two were missing yesterday evening due to standing up too firmly and taking responsibility too eagerly.
Four minutes of injury, sorry, added time, and it was justified because the Bulgarians kicked the Italians at every opportunity. Each time the Italians attempted to mount a quick counter-attack a Bulgarian would collapse as if shot by an elephant-gun, writhe in agony and wave like a drowning man until the ball was kicked to touch and the game halted for medical attention which was never necessary. A defender came off and an attacker came on. Adventure? From the Italians? Why so late?
Four minutes of added time. And it was necessary. 90+4. 2-1?
The joy on Cassano’s face as he exquisitely swept home the later-than-late, low cross, was beautiful. Beautiful because it was pure, and beautiful because it was deluded and hence short-lived. He ran to the touch line, arms wide, smile wider, to be greeted and cheered by the coach whose job he had just saved. But he was not greeted and he was not cheered and Trapattoni will not be saved. Cassano only needed to be told two words for his world to collapse, and each word was the same, and each word was a number less than three and more than one.
Foul play has been cried by the Italians. It was cried before the match, but the Swedes and the Danes don’t do match fixing and gerrymandering. It’s not in their make-up. Perhaps the only reason the Italians suspect it is because they would not be beyond it themselves, and indeed in the past have not been beyond it. As suspicious as the mutually beneficial scoreline between the Danes & Swedes might be, you cannot plan a goal like Jon Dahl Tomasson’s first, the most spectacular strike of the tournament so far. And even if the penalty was dubious and the late equaliser only flapped at by the keeper, there can be no other conclusion than that the Italians were hoist by their own petard.
6/23/2004 09:22:00 am