Words: Martin Mork
Antonio Cassano scored the equaliser against Torino in the 52nd minute with a neat finish and celebrated in eccentric fashion, kicking away the corner flag in joy. Referee Nicola Pierpaoli had no other option, he gave the Sampdoria forward his seventh yellow card of the season.
It has already been a busy afternoon for Pierpaoli at Marassi in March 2008 and with the game tied at 2-2, it was expected that Walter Mazzarri’s men would raise the pressure. But no matter how much Samp wanted to turn the game around, the two deep-lying midfielders in Walter Novellino’s unusual 4-4-2 formation kept the home side out.
Simone Barone and Vince Grella provided two extra defenders for the Granata side and Gianluca Comotto had forced Samp to hit back once through Luigi Sala, then David Di Michele made sure Cassano’s goal only levelled the matters in the second half.
Italy CT Roberto Donadoni had started to give him attention again, but claimed Cassano, who obviously was hitting his heights, needed to address his character. But he had scored again, on his way back in top shape, calling for a new chance in the national side.
Then, a little more than 30 minutes had passed since the equaliser and in the 87th minute, Comotto intervened down by his own corner flag when Cassano entered to steal the ball back, tried to pull out of a challenge, but brought the Torino player down despite the slightest of contact. Pierpaoli saw it differently and awarded the guests a free kick.
Cassano responded by cursing twice rapidly towards the referee, obviously not agreeing with the decision, and maybe his response helped earn him a second yellow for dissent. Because before he knew it, Cassano was looking at Pierpaoli waving the red card in the air and the boy from Bari lost it – perhaps more than he’d ever lost it in public before.
It's not often that even the opponents try to join in calming someone down, but Torino’s Simone Barone realised this was threatening to get genuinely dangerous and desperately attempted to save Cassano from himself. As so many have learned over the years, nobody can do that.
Cassano pulled his shirt off and threw it at the referee, whilst continuing to pelt the match official with insults. His fury was combined with the kind of stamina that was so rarely seen in his playing career, as he carried on making a bad situation much worse.
Having finally been dragged off to the touchline, he refused to go into the tunnel, instead shouting and pointing at the referee: “I’ll be waiting for you right here. Right here.”
Fortunately, FantAntonio woke up from his fog of rage in time to avoid the referee and went out after the final whistle to apologise to his own fans. They knew what was coming, a five-match ban and €20,000 fine. Sampdoria didn’t even bother to appeal what was in hindsight perhaps a lenient punishment.
“I apologise to everyone,” read a statement that followed the game. “I understood almost immediately that I hade made a stupid mistake. At the end of the match, I apologised to the fans and teammates and I clarified the incident with designator Pierluigi Collina.”
Sampdoria claimed he had to apologise through a message and not during the press conference after the game, as he was stopped to be tested for doping and the CEO Giuseppe Marotta couldn’t ‘contest the sending off’.
“Even if the slur towards the referee has now entered the order of language… There’s a competitive trance, but Cassano, without a doubt, made a mistake,” Marotta said before he claimed the player had spoken to referee Pierpaoli in the dressing room after the game.
Torino coach Novellino saw it differently, highlighting that Cassano, who had returned to Italy after two difficult years at Real Madrid, needed to be shielded and decided to defend the Azzurri hopeful in an interview with Sky Sport Italia after the game.
“I’m sorry for Cassano,” he said. “In the end, he fell into a bad moment and we have to forgive him. He is a natural talent and a very good boy. He is instinctive and needs to be helped, he comes from two difficult years in which he has accumulated anger and energy, and today he had an outburst. He was caught by a moment of anger. It was not a good behaviour, but in the storm, he apologised and therefore must be helped and understood.”
At the time, it was believed that the antics would cost Cassano his place in Donadoni’s Euro 2008 squad, but the forward, who had helped the Blucerchiati to sixth in Serie A, continued to contribute throughout the summer as the Azzurri advanced from Group C in Austria and Switzerland, and appeared in all four games as Italy crashed out of the competition on penalties against eventual winners Spain.