Cassano, Italy beat odds to reach Euro 2012 final

Martin Rogers

Antonio Cassano has revealed how Spanish rival Andres Iniesta helped convince him to remain in soccer after he suffered a postgame stroke last year.

Cassano has been in superb form to help Italy advance to Sunday’s Euro 2012 final, but he has done so just months after he considered quitting the game due to the severe health problems that left him fearing for his life.

One of his chief opponents at the Olympic Stadium in Kiev will be Iniesta, the Barcelona midfielder who spared a few moments of his time and potentially changed the destiny of this tournament back in 2011.

When Cassano suffered an ischemic stroke caused by the blockage of an artery to the brain in October, he was contacted by countless friends and well-wishers within the game. Yet one of the messages that resonated the most was from Iniesta.

The note was surprising and particularly poignant. First of all, the pair knew each other only vaguely, but Iniesta spoke touchingly of his own friend Daniel Jarque, who died of a sudden heart attack at the age of 26. Iniesta paid tribute to Jarque with a special T-shirt he unveiled after scoring the winning goal in the 2010 World Cup final.

Iniesta's exact words to Cassano are known only to the two of them, but they struck a chord with the Italian striker, especially in the private periods of reflection when the 29-year-old Cassano, who was wild and unpredictable early in his career and seemingly destined to be a wasted talent, strongly thought about giving up the game.

Normally happy-go-lucky, Cassano saw his life changed forever on the night he returned from AC Milan’s visit to Roma. He initially struggled to see and then found it difficult to formulate any coherent thoughts. Persuaded to go to a nearby hospital, Cassano was finally diagnosed as having suffered a stroke.

That scare, combined with the shock deaths of two Italian athletes – volleyball star Vigor Bovolenta and soccer player Piermario Morosini – made retirement a serious possibility for Cassano. Then Iniesta’s message came through, followed soon by the urging of Italy head coach Cesare Prandelli. The fire of competition was lit within Cassano once more.

The results have been spectacular. Cassano has been calm and composed and devilishly creative at the Euros, with his small stature, speed of turn and soccer intelligence making him a nightmare for any defense to handle.

The backline of Germany, then the Euro 2012 favorite, had no answer in the semifinal as Cassano set up the first of Mario Balotelli’s two match-winning goals with a perfectly floated cross from the left.

[More Euro 2012: Computer projections for Spain vs. Italy, most likely goal scorer]

The 2-1 upset victory set up Sunday's final, a rematch of the 1-1 draw between the teams in the opening game of Group C three weeks ago. Back then, Cassano told Spain’s coaching staff that the sides would meet again in the final.

It will be the biggest game of Cassano’s career and a moment put into stark perspective by all that has happened to him.

"I thought it was over," Cassano said. "It is hard to come back from something like that and I didn’t want to. The whole world messaged me, even Iniesta. It was something I valued specially. Things like this made me first think about playing again and then realize that was my desire."

Victory would be the culmination of an epic journey for Italy. Just a week before the tournament, Prime Minister Mario Monti suggested shutting down Italian soccer to clean the game up. Just like before it won the World Cup in 2006, Italy was mired in a scandal involving match-fixing and corruption. Once again, the response has been one of unity.

The opponent could not be any tougher, though. Spain is gunning for an unprecedented third major international trophy in a row. Its play is not as smooth or silky as in 2008 or 2010 and it has faced accusations of being boring. Still though, no one has found an appropriate answer and the Spanish will go in as the favorite in Kiev.

Given that Cassano has already upset the odds, this challenge should not overly faze him.

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