Between 2008 and 2010, Italian football fans were spellbound by two men’s combination play in the shirts of Sampdoria as the deadly goalscorer Giampaolo Pazzini and the creative genius Antonio Cassano almost brought Sampdoria into the Champions League. The pair was nicknamed “Pazzano” and were in the best form of their careers. After subsequent moves to the Milan giants saw the start of both players’ form gradually declining, the pair now reunite in the romantic city of Verona. The promoted Hellas Verona recently confirmed the signing of Cassano to join Pazzini in a club pinning their hopes on “Pazzano” to ensure Serie A survival.
The two attackers took vastly different but also somewhat similar paths prior to linking up at Samp. Cassano was Il Gioiello di Bari Vecchia (the jewel of old Bari) who left his southern boyhood club for the capital and AS Roma, then reigning champions, in 2001 as the most expensive teenager in the world at the time. Cassano had been raised in poverty by his single mother after his father had left the family before coming through Bari’s youth setup to make his Serie A debut in an Apulia derby against Lecce aged 17. Cassano impressed with his skill, creativity and confidence and made 50 appearances for Bari in two seasons before joining Roma.
Cassano’s time at Roma didn’t leave up to the hype. While there certainly were occasions of his brilliance as he linked up with the peerless Francesco Totti, his time in the capital is more remembered for his constant arguments with coaches, referees and the club officials. That said, Cassano had three consecutive seasons of reaching double figures for goals between 2002 and 2005. When Real Madrid offered 5 million euros to take the problematic Cassano off Roma’s hands in January 2006 following six months of constant conflict regarding a contract extension, a deal was swiftly concluded.
Cassano headed west to the superstars at Real and started by scoring three minutes into his debut in the Copa Del Rey. Cassano didn’t keep the positive momentum going though and started gaining weight which allegedly lead to Real fining him for every gram he remained over his playing weight. After Fabio Capello became manager at the start of the 2006/07 campaign, there was only one way Cassano would go and that was away from the Spanish capital as his relationship with Capello was badly damaged since their time together at Roma. Cassano did remain at Real for the entirety of that season, earning a La Liga title (albeit with only seven appearances), but that was mostly because of an injury midway through the season which ruled him out of a move in the January transfer window. By summer 2007 however, Cassano was on the move and joined Sampdoria on an initial loan, and would be joined by Pazzini 18 months later.
“I chose Sampdoria because I think Genoa is the right city for me. In fact, the fans welcomed me in an incredible way. I need love, when I receive love I am ready to give one hundred percent. First of all I want to go back to being a top player”
– Cassano on his move to Sampdoria and his character.
Giampaolo Pazzini had started his career at the superb academy of Atalanta before making 56 appearances for the first team, scoring 15 goals. That prompted the interest of bigger clubs and Fiorentina signed the young striker in January 2005. Pazzini could never establish himself in the starting eleven at a club boasting a strikeforce including first Luca Toni and later Adrian Mutu and Alberto Gilardino so was forced into a back-up role for most of his time in Florence. The lack of first team opportunities prompted a change of scenery, and Pazzini found the perfect place to revive a fading career when he joined Sampdoria in January 2009 to link up with another former talent.
Cassano and Pazzini struck up a fruitful partnership straight away as Pazzini relished the chance to be the main man in a Serie A attack. With Pazzini as the prima punta and Cassano the seconda punta providing for him from a free role behind, Pazzini hit the ground running and managed 11 goals in 19 league games during the second half of the 2008/09 season. Cassano enjoyed the presence of the new signing to and contributed 12 goals and 15 assists over the entire season. The duo led Sampdoria to safety and the club ended the season in mid table.
The following campaign, 2009/10 would prove spectacular for both players and the club. “Pazzano” combined in devastating fashion to see Pazzini manage 19 league goals with Cassano adding nine of his own on top of ten assists. An energetic and aggressive Samp even led the table in September, but eventually finished fourth and secured the chance to qualify for the Champions League group stage. Cassano’s creativity, skill and insanely impressive passing coupled with Pazzini’s finishing was unstoppable, even for the most tactically-sound Italian defences. Still, Cassano missed out on the 2010 World Cup and Pazzini only managed to get off the bench for 29 minutes against New Zealand as Italy’s pathetic defence of the World Cup ended at the group stage.
The subsequent Champions League qualification against Werder Bremen proved their efforts in vain though, as Samp were knocked out and had to make due with the Europa League. Two months later, Cassano was banned from the first team having been involved in a row with the chairman Riccardo Garrone who even applied to a league arbitration panel to terminate Cassano’s contract. This was rejected, but Cassano’s time at Samp was up. Pazzini continued scoring, albeit not at the same rate without his partner, and come January 2011 they would both be off.
Pazzini joined the blue half of Milan by joining Inter while Cassano joined AC Milan and the excitement of the “Pazzano” combination was promptly ended. Pazzini initially shone at Inter, scoring 11 goals in only 17 league matches before the completion of the 2010/11 season. The second season proved more difficult as 40 appearances, mostly off the bench, only yielded eight goals. Pazzini’s confidence was gone and on the other half of the city, his former partner had a difficult time too but instead off the pitch.
Cassano had started well at Milan with four goals and six assists in his initial half-season as Milan won the Scudetto, but the second one was a personal ordeal as a heart condition was found and he was forced into surgery. He did return to the team in April 2012 and managed three goals and 10 assists in 16 appearances across the campaign, a superb return following a very difficult year. Cassano was picked for Italy to go to Euro 2012, and was terrific at the tournament playing off Mario Balotelli as the pair inspired Italy to reach the final where they eventually lost to Spain.
That summer of 2012 saw Paris Saint-Germain flex their muscles and sign Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva from Milan. Cassano was disappointed and requested a transfer. His wish was granted in somewhat ironic circumstances as Milan’s need for a prolific goalscorer to replace Ibrahimovic led them to Pazzini. On the 21st of August the deal was done with Milan paying Inter 7.5 million euros plus Cassano to sign Pazzini. It’s a pity that Milan didn’t keep Cassano to play alongside Pazzini to make sure the pair could link up again, but at least the men involved saw the funny side of them switching clubs.
“Antonio and I have been friends since our days at Sampdoria. When I read about this deal on the front page of a paper I called him and joked: ‘See, these days you need me to get your name onto the front page…’
-Pazzini upon his move to AC Milan in August 2012.
Pazzini first season at Milan was very good as he managed 15 goals in the league for the Rossoneri. After the initial success though, Pazzini struggled to remain in the eleven and in scoring form and his last two seasons only brought six goals in 44 Serie A appearances. After three seasons at Milan, he joined Hellas Verona in 2015 but his six goals in 2015/16 wasn’t enough to keep Hellas in the top division and they were relegated. Pazzini followed the club into Serie B and recaptured his scoring touch as he fired in 23 goals in 35 appearances to end up as Serie B’s capocannoniere and inspire Hellas to promotion back into Serie A ahead of the 2017/18 season.
Cassano only spent one season at Inter, but didn’t replicate his form from Samp or Milan as he constantly argued with head coach Andrea Stramaccioni. They even got themselves into a heated argument in the dressing room once which led to a physical confrontation before teammates intervened. Still, Cassano’s stats were superb with nine goals and 15 assists in all competitions. At the end of the season, he joined Parma and was once again the undoubted star man in a smaller club. Cassano showed signs of mental growth as he worked harder on his fitness and diet issues from previously in his career and lost 10kg in the process. On the pitch Cassano inspired Parma to a sixth place finish and Europa League qualification with the creator scoring 12 goals in Serie A while adding eight assists. That was his first season with double figures in regards to goals since 2008/09.
In the first half of the following campaign, 2014/15, Cassano scored five in 19 appearances as his contribution continued to be consistent, but Parma were struggling to fend off the relegation zone. The club was battling severe financial difficulties off the pitch and in January 2015, the club agreed to terminate Cassano’s contract effective immediately. Allegedly, Cassano hadn’t been paid since June 2014. Parma were relegated and Cassano returned to Sampdoria where he spent the 2015/16 season, scoring two and assisting five before he found himself in another row with a chairman. Massimo Ferrero decided Cassano wasn’t part of his plans, excluded him from the first team and put the Apulian up for sale. Cassano continued training with the clubs Primavera side before leaving Samp and signing for Hellas Verona earlier this week.
Pazzini and Cassano are very different characters who despite this have some striking similarities. They both made a name for themselves as talented kids, Cassano in particular, but failed to establish themselves at big clubs like Fiorentina, Roma (though Cassano had a terrific spell in 2003/04 which saw him bag 18 goals, a career best) and Real Madrid before thriving together at Sampdoria – a smaller club with less pressure where they could be the main men. They then had some runs of excellent form at both Milan clubs although both players’ time at the clubs ultimately will be remembered as failures before once again thriving as the big fish in a small pond at Hellas and Parma.
Giampaolo Pazzini will likely be remembered as a very good Italian goalscorer. Not among the likes of Christian Vieri, Filippo Inzaghi or Alberto Gilardino but still a very good one. Antonio Cassano on the other hand will be remembered as one of the best players the world never quite saw. With his technical quality and creativity he could have been one of the best players in Europe for years but a questionable attitude, poor professionalism and a confrontational personality always held him back. He’s entertained so many during the years, but there’s certainly a sense of ‘what could have been’ around him.
They now reunite at Hellas with the hope that they can rekindle the partnership that had all of Italy excited back in those glorious seasons in 2008-2010. Pazzini showed last season that he can still score goals and Cassano’s mix of skill, passing ability and unrivalled creativity will ensure Pazzini get chances to convert. At 35, Cassano will be determined to show that class is permanent after more than a year without competitive matches and Pazzini, 33 when the season starts, will show that he can still score the goals required to fire Hellas to survival. The club hope they can produce moments like they did at Samp and there’s no reason why they shouldn’t. Maybe not at the same level as back then, but the quality is still there for both men.
Wouldn’t it be fitting if one of Italian football’s most exciting duo’s could rekindle their relationship in the romantic city of Verona? It would be a great end to the story of two talented individuals who require the calm of a smaller setting to enjoy their football and produce their best performances. Together they were better than they ever have been on their own. It’s arguable that Pazzini needs Cassano and Cassano needs Pazzini.
Italian football simply requires the return of “Pazzano”.