In a season in which his career almost came to a sudden and premature end, Italy striker Antonio Cassano is thrilled to be contesting a UEFA European Championship he once thought beyond him, telling UEFA.com: "I want to make the most of it."
Antonio Cassano has come a long way in eight months. In October last year, while flying back from a Serie A match against AS Roma, the AC Milan striker suffered an ischemic stroke. He was subsequently told he would have to undergo heart surgery and that his career might be over, so to find himself returning to the Rossoneri lineup in April and subsequently earning a place in Cesare Prandelli's UEFA EURO 2012 squad is not something he took for granted.
"I'll tell you the truth – at first I thought I would quit football for good," Cassano told UEFA.com. "Then, slowly but surely, I began to see the light at the end of the tunnel and I hoped until the very end that I would make it to this EURO. It came true and now I want to really make the most of it. I'm going to give it everything I've got."
As Italy's top scorer with six goals during their unbeaten qualification campaign, Cassano has become a key player in a side committed to a more free-flowing brand of football, and 'Fant'Antonio' believes he is flourishing under Prandelli's tutelage. The Azzurri coach stuck by the former AS Bari and Real Madrid CF forward through the dark days, insisting he would wait as late as possible to give him every chance of coming to Poland and Ukraine.
"I like Prandelli a lot both as a coach and a person," said the 29-year-old. "He loves talking to you, he explains everything. He's a very well-prepared and well-organised coach and right from the start he made me feel a very important part of the team. When the person who is in charge places such great trust in you, it boosts your confidence and you always try to give your best."
Cassano gave his all for the 65 minutes he was allocated against Spain, coming close with a shot across goal in the first half, but with Antonio Di Natale coming on for Mario Balotelli and scoring, will the Cassano-Balotelli partnership be broken up for the match against Croatia? "The hierarchy is not decided in the press or anywhere else," said Cassano. "It's decided by the coach. Against Spain we played well, but the whole team did. Me, Mario, 'Totò' [Di Natale], even [Sebastian] Giovinco when he came on.
"We have five strikers who are important to the cause. Whoever plays must play well. Hierarchies mean nothing. Obviously, I always want to play for as many minutes as possible. But the coach is the one who decides and he is very good at seeing who is in good condition and who isn't."
With nine international goals, 30 Italy caps to his name and his 30th birthday less than a month away, Cassano is one of the elder statesmen of the side, but playing for Italy clearly remains a huge honour for the man who made his Azzurri debut in 2003 and whose wife and son were spotted in the crowd in Gdansk, sporting Italy shirts and cheering him on.
"If I'm more mature now, it's because I'm [nearly] 30, but I still feel like a child inside," he said. "
It's normal that things that happen to you along the way, like what happened to me at the end of October, leave a little mark, but they also really make you appreciate what's important in life."
For now, though, what is most important to Cassano is Thursday's Group C test against Croatia. Indeed, despite his recent travails, it is clear that the Milan striker has lost none of his competitive edge. "The match against Croatia is crucial for us, and it is for them too. We must try to find a way to win and continue the good work we started against Spain. After that match, we have realised we can take on anyone and go all the way."
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