You can almost hear the shifting of his feet against each blade of grass, a rustle in the wind. His feet were dancing to a beat, in tune with Francesco Totti. Destined for greatness, yet only fulfilling a fraction of his potential. He says he slept with a thousand women, but his trophy cabinet echoes of loneliness. Between the spats with his coach, protests against the officials, fights with his opponent, or even his own teammates, he would later recall nothing but regret for his actions. For all the poor decisions Antonio Cassano made throughout his career, it must be said that he put the city of Bari on the map.
Through him, the city became associated with flare and the street-skills he brought to his game. Since the forward was sold to Roma in 2001, setting a record as the most expensive teenage signing at the time, the city itself has suffered. High levels of unemployment and a lack of investment in infrastructure have taken their toll, and the city’s club SSC Bari have fallen just as hard – almost into oblivion. There were allegations of match fixing, a reckless locker room and corruption within its organisation. There were reports that a Floridian media company had approached to buy the club before they were purchased by Gianluca Paparesta, who was implicated in Calciopoli. Things looked promising when the club was approached by a wealthy Malaysian businessman, but the deal collapsed at the last hour.
It was around this time, as the club’s future appeared ominous, that one of its bright starlets emerged and departed from greener pastures. Gaetano Castrovilli left home for Fiorentina in 2017 having spent a year on loan at i Viola during the 2015-16 season, impressing then head coach Vincenzo Montella. Director of Football, Pantaleo Corvino, had brought Castrovilli north after Corvino himself made the step up from Fiorentina’s Primavera. Predictably, Castrovilli had already been labelled as the “new Cassano,” even if his style was a bit different. If nothing more, it gave the city a hope for his future, in the way parents desire a better life for their child.
And the 2019-20 season has been all Castrovilli. Since he was given his chance to impress against Napoli at the season’s beginning, he has become Fiorentina’s most important midfielder – outperforming all the new regime’s signings, including Kevin Prince Boateng. When Jordan Veretout left for Roma over the summer, there were questions about how the organisation would replace their utility midfielder. In turn though, they found a developing player who can not only keep up with the pace and physicality of midfield battles, but also has the technical ability to pirouette past the opposition and drive the play all on his own.
Part of Castrovilli’s success is attributed to the unique activity he practised through his youth. Earlier in the season, he spoke of his love for dance, and the humbleness he learned from his upbringing:
“The dance training is helping a great deal with my movements on the pitch.
“I had originally signed up to a classical dance class when I was a kid. After my grandfather died, he was a big fan of Bari, so I decided to sign up to the local football school too.”
His admiration for his nonno and Southern-Italian family morals would quickly help him fulfill his destiny:
“My family gave me strong values and I don’t think I will ever lose those. The most important is humility and I promise to always work hard for everything.”
These principles can be seen in his teamplay and support. Whereas other midfield playmakers might shirk their defensive duties, Castrovilli is a fierce tackler, who fights to recover the ball just as hard as he looks to push play forward. In attack, he’s made RAI’s highlight reels for his ability to see between the lines and strike a ball from distance
His rapid rise to stardom has also led to a callup for the national team, getting his first Azzurri cap in November. He’s expected to be part of Roberto Mancini’s final European Championship squad when the tournament eventually takes place.
Castrovilli’s generation is blessed with other talented Italian midfielders such as Nicola Barella and Stefano Sensi, and his qualities compliment the group among whom he will continue to develop and grow. With his humble origins, family values, and elusive dancing feet, Castrovilli’s future may well remain away from Southern Italy, not unlike his contemporaries who move on in search of a better life. He proves that there’s still hope for players from the city of Bari and those with limited opportunity. And as Castrovilli twirls towards stardom, his dancing feet will be enjoyed by Calcio fans across the peninsula.
Words by Wayne Girard: @WayneinRome