It’s 15 May 2016 at the Friuli stadium in Udine, and the final match for Antonio Di Natale after 438 outings and 226 goals for Udinese. The prince of calcio is leaving his beloved Zebrette. It’s one final match against a Carpi side that is desperately fighting relegation.
Di Natale sits on the bench for the first half of his final match as the crowd holds up signs with the iconic number 10 and his name. Finally, with his 10-man Udinese side down by two goals, Di Natale comes on to the pitch in the 78th minute. Immediately the decibels rise, a penalty is awarded, and Di Natale steps to the spot. His 227th goal is scored with the execution and confidence of a master.
As the curtain comes down on the 2015-16 Serie A season, we witness the end of one of the most prolific careers of any striker in Italian history. This amazing striker is calling it a day for the Zebrette with a bag full of records in his pocket, some that are unlikely to be beaten in the black and white of the northern club. After a season in which Di Natale only managed to find the net once in 22 matches, the 38-year-old will leave the club he has served for 12 seasons as the all-time leading Udinese scorer and sixth of all-time on the Serie A list. His place in history is assured.
Di Natale is Napolitano by birth and was a precocious young football player. At 16 he was scouted away from Napoli and became the leading prospect at Empoli, where he immediately demonstrated his pace and eye for a goal.
A humble man, Di Natale married his first love, Ilenia Betti, and has grown a family together in Udine, spurring the limelight and rejecting offers from Turin giants Juventus, the Marcello Lippi-coached Guanzhou Evergrande, and several opportunities in Major League Soccer along the way for ever growing amounts of money. It is for an unquenching love of football – and for his adopted city – that Di Natale takes the pitch.
When team-mate Piermario Morosini died on the pitch of sudden cardiac arrest, Di Natale took it upon himself to assume financial responsibility of Morosinis’ disabled sister, who had no other family, their parents having passed away. Di Natale was known as the consummate professional and sportsman, shunning personal and team glory during moments of incredible morality. The Italian once received a Fair Play award from Serie A for his actions when he kicked the ball out of play at a time when Udinese were a goal down late on in the game and had a prime chance to score via a counter-attack. For Di Natale, sportsmanship superseded the need to win.
Plying his trade in the relative obscurity of Udine had its challenges for Di Natale, and it took years for him to be recognised for his brilliance in attack. The partnership he established with Vincenzo Iaquinta in his debut season at Udinese – after leaving relegated Empoli – proved to be a pivotal moment for both Di Natale and Udinese.
The striker played 33 matches in that debut season, scoring seven times and securing fourth place for the Friulian side, which resulted in a spot in the 2005-06 Champions League. It was the first appearance for Udinese in European football’s biggest tournament and a chance for Di Natale to shine on the grandest stage.
Udinese had previously made appearances in the UEFA Cup and the Mitropa Cup, a competition for clubs who had won their respective second tiers, which existed from 1927 to 1992. The Mitropa Cup is considered to be the continuation of the first true international football tournament, known as the Challenge Cup, which was started in 1897 in Vienna and was reincarnated on a number of occasions over the years.
By the start of the 2004-05 season, it was becoming obvious to most that Di Natale was a special player, one of the best in Serie A, fast on the break and a lethal finisher. His down to earth personality and club loyalty were evident from the very start, and it endeared him to a set of fans that will now cherish him as perhaps their greatest ever striker. After three seasons with the Zebrette, Di Natale was named club captain. His leadership helped guide Udinese to heights unseen before his time.
A perpetual mid-table – and oftentimes relegated – side, Udinese was never seen as a club to be feared by the giants of Milan or Turin. Despite being the second-oldest club in Serie A, they had never challenged the rank and order in calcio, until the 1.7m tall Di Natale decided to rewrite the club’s history.
Udinese struggled during their initial stint in the Champions League, finishing third in Group C behind eventual champions Barcelona and second placed Werder Bremen. Their 4-3 loss to the Germans eventually paved their way to join the second tier of European football again, mirroring their history as a club in the second of band of Italy’s best.
• • • •
Read | The Udinese way of survival
• • • •
Di Natale’s personal form was overshadowed by team-mate Vincenzo Iaquinta, who scored a hat-trick in a match against Panathinaikos. Without their manager Luciano Spalletti, who had managed the side to the fourth place finish the season before, the Zebrette did not have enough to make it to the knockout rounds, and eccentric manager Serse Cosmi was summarily dismissed after just seven months into his tenure with the club.
Regardless of the outcome of European competition, Di Natale was not the type of player to be tempted by the big money and flash of the clubs that started to knock on his door. Most notably, Juventus had taken strong interest in how Di Natale was playing. With their scouts hovering around the stocky striker, rumours circulated that the Old Lady was prepared to make him their marquee signing of 2006. Di Natale was having none of it, shunning the riches of wealth to continue his journey for a set of fans that had given him riches of another kind. He was happy in Udine, his life was settled and he was starting a family.
By 2007, another team came calling for Di Natale’s service. This time, however, a transfer wouldn’t have to take place for him to make a step up in level. His Azzurri chance was finally here.
The 2008 Euros would feature Di Natale in his first major international tournament. The striker played well for Roberto Donadoni’s side, however in the quarter-finals against the burgeoning monster of Spain, he missed a crucial penalty and Italy eventually went down to the would-be champions. Di Natale was now a regular in the Azzurri squad, and his pace and striking prowess was critical to replace the loss of Luca Toni after the 2006 World Cup.
For the 2010 World Cup, Di Natale was given the iconic number 10 and all the pressure that comes with it. Unfortunately, Marcello Lippi’s side was in a transitional period and fared poorly, failing to reach the knockout rounds after draws with Paraguay and New Zealand and a crippling loss to Slovakia, where Di Natale finally got on the scoresheet.
In his final international tournament – with a career blossoming after he turned 30 – Di Natale participated in the 2012 Euros. This time, Udinese’s star man, widely regarded amongst Europe’s elite band of strikers, would make a real difference.
He scored the only goal that eventual champions Spain conceded in the tournament in a 1-1 draw in the group stage. Di Natale started five matches and came off the bench in the final against overwhelming favourites Spain, who once again proved to be the best in the world by dismantling the Cesare Prandelli led Azzurri 4-0 and securing their dynasty.
Di Natale subsequently announced his retirement from international duty with his body ageing and travel taking its toll on his club output. He retired with 11 goals in 42 appearances under a panoply of managers.
Back at Udinese things were the same, with Di Natale piling up the goals year after year in domestic competition, having his best season in 2009-10 with 29 strikes, becoming Serie A Player of the Year and finishing second in the European Golden Boot award behind Chelsea’s Didier Drogba. It said everything that in a team inferior to Chelsea’s, with Di Natale the only major input in terms of goals, he placed himself amongst the continent’s best again.
During that season Di Natale accounted for 54 percent of Udinese’s offensive firepower. It was seasons like 2009-10 and his incredible professionalism and loyalty that has seen owner Giampaolo Pozzo suggest that the number 10 should be retired in his honour. Few players have such an illustrious number retired for them; Di Natale would become one of the first in Serie A.
Always a big fish in a small pond, Di Natale did have partnerships during his career that made the beautiful game something special to watch, instead relying on his individual skills and finishing ability. Despite playing with players from Alexis Sánchez to Fabio Quagliarella, it was always the elder statesman who shone brightest, highlighting his undoubted ability but leaving a sense of longing for what could have been had Di Natale peaked earlier in his career.
When tales of calcio will be told in years to come and the stories are written of the great players of the 21st century, there will unquestionably be a place for the quiet man who remained loyal to the principles of family, the brotherhood of team, and the sportsmanship of the old Italian game.
Known affectionately by man in Udine as “The Prince” for his ability and attitude, Antonio Di Natale should be heralded as the opposite of the privileged superstar, this hard-working man who showed up and did his job with a smile and kind word will forever live in the hearts of the Friulian. Di Natale may yet play for another side, but his heart will always be black and white.
By Jim Hart. Follow @Catenacciari