Antonio Di Natale | The greatest unheralded striker from Italy

Di Natale | FI

Pomigliano d’Arco is a small town situated in Naples, Italy and famous for the numerous automobile plants in the city. It is a small municipality and is of much scenic beauty, with the Mount Vesuvius down south. Antonio ‘Toto’ Di Natale was born here on October 13, 1977. 40 years later, he is fondly remembered as one of the legends to have played in the Italian top division. Di Natale was a great player, make no mistake about that. His other qualities that defined him as the person he was made him stand apart from the rest. Saying that these virtues of his might have slightly overshadowed his ability as a footballer would not be stretching it too thin.

At 13 years of age, a young Di Natale was admitted to the Empoli youth academy, roughly 500 kilometres away from his hometown in Naples. Within a week, Di Natale ran back to his family having been homesick, missing the comforts of home and his family. However, he was cajoled back to Empoli and thus began Di Natale’s footballing career.

He broke into the Empoli first team in 1999-00 season, having spent the previous season successfully on loan at the Tuscan side Viareggio. He scored six goals in his first season at the club that scouted him at the start of the decade. Two years later, Empoli won promotion to the Serie A, finishing in the fourth place with Di Natale topping the scoring charts for the club with 16 goals. He was once again crucial in contributing to Empoli’s cause in battling relegation in the Serie A, netting an impressive 13 goals over the course of the season.

With Empoli’s subsequent relegation in 2003-04, came Di Natale’s biggest turning point in his career and it can be argued to an extent, it was Udinese’s too. Udinese signed Di Natale at the start of the 04-05 season and he formed the triumvirate with Vincenzo Iaquinta and David Di Michele. Udinese secured fourth place that season and thus qualifying for the Champions League next season. It was a huge achievement for a club like Udinese who had previously never played in the top tier of the European competition. For a club whose previous notable achievement in Europe was having featured in the UEFA Cup, this was a massive step forward.

Di Natale quickly went about establishing himself as a top class striker in the Serie A, his technique and awareness around the box standing out as his strengths In his early years he had the pace to burn and was a threat on the counter attack. Due to his superior technique and a good understanding of the game, Di Natale could play anywhere across the forward line although he had his best games down the center.

He formed great partnerships with multiple players down the years and this highlighted his ability to bring others into the game and that he was just not always about goal-scoring. His long range shooting was impeccable and was a sound free-kick taker. As he moved into his 30’s, Di Natale started scoring a lot of goals that one would associate with a classic number 9. His poaching instincts matured with age and his positional awareness was on display for all to see.

Di Natale was a fan favourite in Udine and was appointed as the captain of the club without any hesitation before the start of the 07-08 season. This brought out the best in Di Natale and helped the club reach new heights under him. His character and conduct off the pitch was taken notice of and this helped him build a great rapport with the fans. As if this was not enough to strengthen his bond with the club and their faithful, Di Natale turned down a number of lucrative offers from clubs who came knocking.

Juventus showed a keen interest in signing Di Natale with the scouts coming in with glowing reports of the striker. Di Natale was quick to refuse the offer citing that he was happy at Udine. He did not want his wife Ilenia Betti, whom he married in 2002, to relocate and wanted his children to grow up in Udine. Riches and fame would not matter much for Di Natale in front of the satisfaction and the peace of mind he and his family enjoyed in Udine in the midst of adoring eyes.

The reasons Di Natale chose to avoid a move to lusher pastures were always down to his family. Di Natale sought happiness leading a content and settled life rather than go for personal glory or fame. Such loyalty to a club is rare in today’s world and Di Natale brilliantly personifies the beauty in the game. An endearing personality off the pitch, Di Natale was not in the least egoistic and the fans worshipped him for who he was, both on and off the pitch.

Di Natale was awarded the Serie A Fair Play award in 2010 when he put the ball into touch in the dying minutes of the game with Udinese trailing 3-2 against Lazio. Sportsmanship always took the fore for Di Natale and despite Udinese having a great chance to score on the counter at that time, he put the ball out as Libor Kozak was down injured. Udinese do not exactly boast a rich history and marquee players down the years. This should not however detract the fact that Di Natale completely deserves to be celebrated as Udinese’s greatest ever striker by their fans.

Toto’s career is the prime example of a career peaking late. Giovanni Trapattoni gave Di Natale his first senior international cap in 2002. However, Di Natale was not in the reckoning for the next few years as he was often overlooked. As he entered his 30’s, Di Natale got his international call up and featured in Azzurri’s challenge of the Euro 2008 as Roberto Donadoni saw Di Natale in his plans ever since the aftermath of the 06’ World Cup.

Italy lost to eventual champions Spain in the quarter-finals of the Euro 2008, with the tournament turning as one to forget for Di Natale as he missed a penalty in the shootout against Spain. The 2010 World Cup was a bigger step forward for Di Natale as he was tasked with spearheading the attack for Marcelo Lippi’s side. It was a tournament to forget for Di Natale and co as they crashed out of the World Cup failing to qualify from a group that had Paraguay, Slovakia and New Zealand.

Italy came past the poor showing in South Africa and in 2012, they were a force to be reckoned with as they made the finals only to lose to their all too familiar foes in Spain. Everyone started to realise that Di Natale was special as he was once again in the forefront for the strikers who would start for Italy in the Euros. At that time, Di Natale was 35 years old and still managed to start for the Azzurri. Prandelli’s side could hold their heads up high as they lost to the pre-tournament favourites and the then World Champions Spain who secured their second consecutive Euros.

The reason Di Natale was in the reckoning for the national side even that age was the phenomenal consistency he was showing in the Serie A. In the 2009-10 season, he notched 29 goals in the Serie A on course of winning the Capocannoniere. The following season he scored 28 goals as he won his second consecutive Capacannoniere. The last time Udinese had representatives winning the Golden Boot consecutively for two seasons was back in 1997-98 and 98-99 when Oliver Bierhoff and Marco Amoroso won respectively.

Di Natale also broke Bierhoff’s record of most goals scored in a single season by a Udinese player overtaking Bierhoff’s haul of 28 back in 98’. As the seasons kept moving on, Di Natale seemed to be in no hurry to finish his career and the fact that Juventus came calling for him in 2010 despite his age speaks volumes of his ability. Shunning moves away from Udine, Di Natale all but cemented his place in the history books of the club.

Di Natale’s most talked about act of kindness and humanitarian cause came in the wake of his teammate Piermario Marosini dying on the pitch in 2012. Marosini was on loan at Livorno and suffered a massive cardiac arrest while playing a Serie B match against Pescara. Di Natale took it upon himself to take care of Marosini’s disabled sister as she had no living relatives left. Di Natale took care of the financial burden and took her under his wing. For a man who valued family and relationships above anything else, this was natural.

Di Natale enjoyed a strong bond with the Udinese President Giampaolo Pozzo. Di Natale stated that “The President’s family have always made me feel like I was one of them. Some things are more valuable than money” when asked why he had not sought a move away from the club, once again highlighting his valuing of family that ran in his veins and also of the club’s.

Di Natale further rejected moves to the MLS and Marcelo Lippi’s Guangzhou Evergrande in 2015. It was widely reported that he turned down offers that would have seen him make almost 7 to 8 times of what he was already making at Udinese. “I think what I have done with Udinese will go down in the history books. I don’t see that as something insignificant. The truth is that I have found my natural home in Friuli and I’ve never thought about leaving a team, a town and a family- the Pozzos, who have adopted me like a son.”

Di Natale flirted with the idea of retirement before actually doing so when he said that he would be retiring at the end of the 2013-14 season. However, he reversed this decision and decided to continue playing. The 13-14 season also marked the fifth consecutive season where he had scored 20 or more goals for the Zebrette, starting from 09-10. This remarkable period saw Di Natale score an astounding 122 goals for Udinese in five seasons. The fact that he was aged 32 at the start of the 09-10 season is testament to his ability and longevity.

On 15 May, 2016 in the Friuli Stadum in Udine, Antonio Di Natale played his last match for the Zebrette. It was against a relegation threatened Carpi side and DI Natale found himself on the bench, much like the rest of the season. Carpi scored two goals and Udinese were also down to ten men. The crowd wanted to see their hero on the pitch for once last time and Di Natale entered the pitch with around a quarter of an hour to go.

It must have been written in the stars that Di Natale should exit in a way he could hold his head high. Udinese get awarded a penalty and Di Natale dispatches it with an ease that can be associated with years of experience of having it done on the pitch. Goal number 227 for Udinese in his 446th and final appearance. It was curtains down on a wonderful career that will be remembered down the years for all the right reasons.

Di Natale ended with 209 goals in the Serie A and is sixth on the all-time top goal-scorers list. Only Silvio Piola, Francesco Totti, Gunnar Nordahl, Giuseppe Meazza and Jose Altafini have scored more goals than him in the top division. That should put into perspective the achievement of Di Natale and his longevity to have made such a feat possible. He has more goals in Serie A than the likes of Roberto Baggio, Alessandro Del Piero and Gabriel ‘Gabigol’ Batistuta. Di Natale is not a superstar who loves to lap up the fame and adorn the headlines. He loves the quiet life. His career is the perfect example of hard work taking the fore and living off the deservedly earned fruits borne from his labor.

For those who think that Di Natale should have made a move to a ‘bigger’ club, they just do not understand the nuances of how success is defined. Di Natale did not seek to win personal accolades. He did not care if his club could not challenge for the league title. No bother if his club was not a perennial powerhouse domestically and in Europe. Monetary rewards were not heeded twice. ‘The Prince’, as he is lovingly called in Udine, found joy in playing in front of a crowd that adored him.

His career might not have shot to the heights it probably should have and there will always be some regret for those who really wanted to see Di Natale reach the pinnacle of the footballing world while at his peak. Di Natale will look back at his career with satisfaction and a feeling of content and it is here in Udine, that he has found the joy that nothing else could have ever given him. That is success too – having a content career and not measuring the success based on trophies or accolades won. All these qualities of this wonderful human being should not deter one from the fact that Antonio Di Natale was a world class footballer and that he will go down in the Calcio history books as one of the greatest players to have played this century.