Some years ago, I visited the Dover Cliffs on England’s southeast coast, at the exact point where the country ends. Beyond a stretch of sea that the English keep on calling the English Channel and the French call La Manche, France begins. As I was walking away from those cliffs, heading back to my bus to London, I noticed a café with, in one corner, a little shelf holding second-hand books. I left three pounds, the only coins I had on hand, and took with me a football book. Its green cover read Full Time: The Secret Life of Tony Cascarino. The autobiography of the Republic of Ireland forward was, according to a Guardian blurb on the back page, “Far more interesting than Beckham’s autobiography” (which had come out the same year, 2001).
Maybe it was the color of the cover (green has always been one of my favorites), or maybe it was that Tony’s story takes place between England and France, in the same place where I randomly found this seemingly-lost manuscript, but I immediately started reading. I had just finished I am Zlatan, and was reminded how we always tend to think of footballers as super-humans. Well, Zlatan is the type of footballer who likes to think so of himself. Cascarino certainly is not. His story is about his career, of course, but in particular highlights his feelings of anxiety, inappropriateness and dissatisfaction, feelings he carried his whole life. Both on the pitch and in life, Cascarino never had great luck nor the capacity to dominate the events around him.
The book, ghostwritten by Irish journalist and Tony’s personal friend, Paul Kimmage, is different from many football books: it shows that being a professional player is not always synonymous with living like a star. At the beginning of his autobiography, Tony describes himself as stuck in the fog. It is 2000. Tony has been a professional footballer since 1982, but does not enjoy playing football anymore. He lives with his French second wife, Virginie, and their 5-year-old daughter, Maeva, in Nancy. As he drives his daughter to school before training, he calculates the monetary gains he’s made as a footballer, and subtracts all the expenses he has and that he will have to face in the future. He knows very well that, in a short while, he will have to retire. He is scared about his future. Angst, depression, a constant sense of inadequacy: these feelings were constantly present for Tony, on the pitch and in his personal life.
Cascarino’s professional career began at Gillingham in 1981. At the time the club was playing in the fourth division, and bought Tony from non-league Crockenhill in exchange for a set of tracksuits. He went on to score 78 goals in 219 matches before moving to Millwall in 1987. There Cascarino was part of an incredible attacking duo with Teddy Sheringham. Scoring 99 goals between them, they led the club to their first promotion to the first division, celebrated in the summer of ‘88.
This jump to top-flight football acted as a springboard in his career, leading him to Aston Villa, Celtic, and Chelsea. But he was never able to leave a mark. At Villa, he spent most of his time injured; at Celtic (where he arrived thanks to his agent and personal friend Liam Brady) the beginning was bright, but he then managed to ruin his relationship with Brady and the supporters (they – of course – didn’t like the fact that he was often out for beers with Rangers players). At Chelsea, he scored just eight goals in two seasons and was never in shape. Maybe it wasn’t surprising, then, that he once overheard manager Ken Bates, talking about the potential transfer of Robert Fleck from Norwich, saying “I don’t want another fucking disaster like Cascarino.” Surely this didn’t help his confidence. He was forced to admit to that first division football in England (or Scotland) was just not his thing.
Great Britain was definitely not the land of dreams for Tony, but France certainly seemed like it might be. Olympique Marseille, too, had gone through a rollercoaster in the early 90’s, winning the Champions League in 1993, then getting relegated the following season due to match-fixing and financial regularities. Cascarino, there for three seasons, declared himself proud of having worn OM’s shirt, as the club had a mythical aura in France. The fans cheered him on as well, giving him the nickname Tony Goal as he became one of the stars of the squad, scoring 61 goals in 87 matches.
But Bernard Tapie, at that time president of the French club, was definitely not the cleanest figure European football has ever known. He insisted medical staff inject the players with an “unknown” substance that created in them a particular state of adrenaline. In the book, Cascarino describes this imposition as “suspicious”; however, as everyone else complied, he thought asking questions would compromise his career at Marseille. His need for acceptance prevailed over his rightful skepticism.
Cascarino then moved to Nancy, where he played from 1997 to 2000, collecting 109 appearances and 44 goals. That wasn’t bad at all, considering he was nearing the end of his career. However, Cascarino’s attitude can be summed up by a metaphor he created himself: “It has often been said that the joy of scoring goals is greater than sex, but personally I’d compare it more with masturbation. I’ve always found sex to be an absolute pleasure, but scoring goals has only ever brought me relief.”
There’s no denying Cascarino found sex a pleasure. When he arrived in France in 1994, he may have been on his way to a revived career, but his personal life was in upheaval. Unfaithful to his British wife, Sarah, he left her and their two children (his second son was named Teddy after Teddy Sheringham, who became a lifelong friend of the Irish player after their exploits at Millwall) to form a new family with Virginie, who later gave birth to Maeva. Tony was never able to establish a good relationship his sons, and mentions his ineptness as a father, as well as his inability to be faithful to his first wife, as additional proof of his failure in life.
It’s not surprising, then, that his deepest secret involves both a desire for familial ties and the need to be accepted.
“How could a man called Tony Cascarino play football for the Republic of Ireland?” The autobiography asks rhetorically, then has Tony answer: “Good question. Ask the punters at Stamford Bridge and they’ll say: ‘Well, he wasn’t going to play for Italy, now, was he?’ A touch cruel, perhaps, but undeniably true. I did qualify to play for Italy but then I qualified to play for England and Scotland as well. Why did I choose the Republic of Ireland? Well, to be honest, I suppose because they chose me.”
Between 1985 and 1999, Cascarino played 88 games and scored 19 goals with the Irish national team. He qualified through what was called the “grandparents rule”: His mother, Theresa O’Malley, was the youngest daughter of Agnes and Michael Joseph O’Malley. Michael, born in Westport, County Mayo, in the west of Ireland, had moved to London when he was a teenager. Tony’s father, as his surname reveals, had Italian origins.
Cascarino was part of the squad that unexpectedly reached the quarterfinals of the 1990 World Cup, where they lost to Italy, the host country. The team received a warm welcome back in Ireland, and for once Tony felt himself part of the success. Despite his constant anxieties, he’d stepped up to the spot – literally. His penalty wasn’t perfect, but he’d shot and it had gone in, helping Ireland win the shootout against Romania that decided the round of sixteen.
The 1990 World Cup signaled the high point of Tony’s career with the Boys in Green, but the truth is that he should have never played for Ireland. In 1996, FIFA changed the rules, making it necessary for international players to hold a passport issued by the state they represented. Cascarino held only an English passport. When he submitted his Irish passport application, Tony discovered his mother had been adopted, meaning he had no blood ties to his Irish grandfather. The link that had allowed him to play with the Boys in Green was destroyed.
But perhaps Cascarino spiritually qualified to play for Ireland. As Irish politician, writer and historian Conor Cruise O’Brien noted, “The notion of Irishness is not primarily a question of birth or blood or language, it is the condition of being involved in the Irish situation, and usually of being marked by it.” In fact, Irishness also corresponds to the idea of always being considered a little poorer and less destined to success, as many Irish have to leave their beloved island to search for fulfilment elsewhere.
Cascarino was still able to get his Irish passport, possibly due to his recognized fame as a footballer. He never needed to reveal the story; indeed not everyone appreciated Cascarino’s honesty. Ireland ex-coach Jack Charlton declared such history should have been kept secret, and his teammates Andy Townsend, Niall Quinn and Steve Staunton agreed. The confession felt desperate, the desire of a man who’d never managed to be happy to be recognized and accepted by the country whom he’d represented.
With a career consisting of few glories and many more unsatisfying experiences on the pitch, with a difficult personal life, ruined by his unfaithfulness to his wives and his devotion to poker, perhaps it’s not surprising that Cascarino tried to tie himself to Ireland. He wanted to be proud of something. That something was his career as an international, established through his mother (his father had abandoned him when he was a child). In the green shirt of a national team characterized by few ambitions and rare peaks of excellence, we can see Tony’s own personal story. In his need for confession, we can feel his desire for a conciliatory hug from those he’d represented.
At 38, Cascarino decided to end his career at Red Star Saint-Ouen, in the French third division. However, he ended up leaving the club after only two matches. He turned his attentions to poker, appearing on Celebrity Poker Club as a player and PartyPoker Den as a commentator. His team also won Season 4 of Celebrity Bainisteoir, a competition requiring contestants to manage Gaelic football teams.
Reality TV seemed like a logical next step for a player who, never really at ease with himself, was still seeking the glory he’d only ever found at one club. After his success at Millwall, he could never impose himself in England, and found it easier to move to France, where the pressure was less intense. He almost certainly knew he would never play for Italy or England, so he gave his allegiance to Ireland, and later only desired the acceptance of his adopted country.
All too often we only think about footballers as heroes. If we think about their secrets, we probably believe they’re linked to the number of girls they’d been with, or behind-the-scenes discussions with coaches and teammates. We wouldn’t think about players who’ve taken part in a World Cup or played Premier League football as insecure, or weak. Cascarino’s biography, though, reflects reality: footballers are humans. They can fail. Regardless of their money and their fame, they might consider themselves losers.