It started with a text message. “I’ve kept the No10 shirt for you,” Antonio Cassano informed Giampaolo Pazzini as he sought to persuade the then Fiorentina striker to join him at Sampdoria back in January 2009. Within a matter of days the transfer had been completed; within 18 months the pair had propelled Samp to a fourth-place finish and a spot in the Champions League qualifying rounds.
Their partnership was hailed as the second coming of ‘I gemelli del gol’ – the goal twins – a nickname previously applied to the pairing of Roberto Mancini and Gianluca Vialli in the 1980s. Not only were they clicking together on the pitch – combining for 28 of Samp’s 49 goals in 2009-10 – but also off it, where they became close friends. When Cassano suffered a mini-stroke last October, Pazzini was one of the first to visit him in hospital.
Yet where Mancini and Vialli enjoyed eight glorious years together at Samp, Pazzini and Cassano would get just two, each being packed off – under rather different circumstances – to a different Milan club at the start of 2011. Their fortunes since have been mixed. After a bright start to life at Inter, Pazzini managed just five goals in 33 league games last season. Cassano, despite playing well enough to become a fixture of Cesare Prandelli’s Italy side, started all too often as a substitute for Milan.
Now they look set to trade places, the Milan vice-president Adriano Galliani acknowledging after his team’s defeat to Juventus in the pre-season Trofeo Berlusconi that discussions over a possible exchange deal had taken place and matters proceeding swiftly from there. Official confirmation of a deal, with Milan also paying €7.5m to Inter, is expected later today, upon completion of the players’ medicals.
While the thought of two city rivals engaging in such business might seem surprising, the truth is that in Milan they are long accustomed to such deals. As long ago as 1940 Giuseppe Meazza – the great striker after whom San Siro is named – joined Milan from Ambrosiana, as Inter were then known, and though that move caused uproar at the time, sufficient players have crossed the divide since – from Fulvio Collovati to Andrea Pirlo – to diminish the shock value.
Given the relationship between these two players, though, it is tempting to wonder whether the whole affair doesn’t have its origin in another few text messages quietly exchanged. At a time when both Milan clubs are engaged in significant cost-cutting exercises, each is looking for ways to tweak their squad with minimal financial outlay. It is not hard to imagine the pair letting their respective clubs know there could be a deal to be done. Then again, Cassano might also have got the idea from Wesley Sneijder – who lives in the same apartment complex in Milan.
Either way, the motivations for each to make such a move are certainly clear. Beyond frustrations at his role under Massimiliano Allegri, and also more broadly at Milan’s transfer policy this summer, Cassano has always had a special affection for Inter. As a boy he played for Pro Inter Bari, a local side which shares its colours with the Nerazzurri and has a long history of sending young talent to the Serie A club.
Cassano, indeed, was given a trial with Inter’s academy at the age of 11, and appeared set to be offered a place before a change in the leadership of the club’s youth programme knocked affairs course. Instead he went on to sign for Bari and, in a neat twist, made his first-ever Serie A start against Inter, scoring a goal of sufficient quality to make the Nerazzurri immediately regret their missed opportunity.
Pazzini might not have quite the same history with Milan, yet his own eagerness to move also has more to it than a mere desire for a change of scenery. Although he made fleeting appearances in the competition for Fiorentina in 2008-09, last season was his first real tilt at the Champions League (Sampdoria failed to reach the group stage in 2010-11). Milan, unlike Inter, have qualified for this year’s edition. Already 28, Pazzini does not want to miss out on any more opportunities.
But for him, too, there is also an emotional pull. While many have lamented the separation of Pazzini from his goalscoring twin, the player now has the opportunity to be reunited with a longer-lost partner in crime. Riccardo Montolivo, signed by Milan this summer, grew up with Pazzini in the Atalanta youth system before moving with him to Fiorentina in 2003 – the pair becoming so inseparable that team-mates and fans nicknamed them Pazzolivo. Even when playing alongside Cassano, Pazzini often cited the midfielder’s through-balls as the best in the business.
For both players, then, the move would make sense, but which club would come out better remains to be seen. Even before you factor in the reported €7.5m fee that Milan must pay, many of the club’s supporters might struggle to see the sense in giving up the player who led their team in assists last year – despite making just 16 appearances – for one who scored so infrequently.
Pazzini, of course, could respond by pointing to more fruitful seasons past, while others might note the difficulties Cassano has had reaching and maintaining optimum fitness since his stroke. In the end what is clear is that neither player represents the sort of high-end signing to which fans of both of these teams have become accustomed.
It would be wrong, after a summer in which Juventus have been able to bring in players of such quality as Mauricio Isla, Kwadwo Asamoah and Sebastian Giovinco, to simply say that this is the new financial reality of Italian football, but it is certainly a reflection on the present position of two of Serie A’s biggest and richest clubs. And that is why each of them so desperately needs this trade to be a success.