“It was a choice of life for me. I feel so good here in Udine, and the president’s family have always made me feel like I was one of them. Some things are worth more than money.”
Beyond any statistics or analysis of his scoring prowess, those words—via UEFA.com and spoken three years ago—sum up Antonio Di Natale perhaps better than anything else. His humility and the devotion to Udinese which stems from it are the hallmarks of a career which will come to an end this summer.
Following a loss to Hellas on Monday, the 36-year-old decided the time was right to announce he would not be back for another campaign with the Zebrette, telling Sky Italia:
“At the end of the season, I will stop. I have already spoken about it with my family. I’ve decided this is my last campaign. It all ends in June. It does hurt, because I’ve scored more goals for Udinese than I’ve gone out for dinner with my wife. I care about Udinese, as this club is like my family.”
He has come to embody the northern Italian club over the 10 years he has spent there, despite previously having no ties to either the team or the region before his arrival. Many have wondered aloud whether he should have looked to leave the Stadio Friuli for a “bigger” club, but the striker’s story is one which perhaps explains his reluctance to leave.
At just 13 years old, he moved from his hometown of Naples to train with Empoli in Tuscany and became so homesick that within a matter of days, he ran away. He would return, but the memory and longing never entirely left him, as he took the first tentative steps of his career on loan at Iperzola and Varese. Success first came in the 1998-99 season, as he scored 12 times in 25 games in yet another loan spell with Viareggio.
From there, he finally made his breakthrough into the first team as part of a 2001-02 side which won promotion to the top flight by outscoring any other club in Serie B. Di Natale’s 16 goals lead the way, and he found the net 13 times in his debut Serie A campaign the following year, including a hat-trick in a win over Reggina.
A year later, however, the Tuscan side were relegated, and “Toto” was on the move once again, picked up by Udinese, a club now synonymous with discovering hidden gems. He played a deferential role for the first few seasons of his time there, playing alongside better known strikers such as Vincenzo Iaquinta and Fabio Quagliarella, who often took much of the attention away from him.
By 2007, he was named captain, but it was two more years before he would truly become the player so revered today. His first five seasons yielded 55 goals, but since the start of the 2009-10 campaign, he has hit the kind of scoring patch reserved for truly great players.
No longer asked to provide for his team-mates, he played the focal point of the Udinese attack, and the return has been staggering. The next four seasons would see him score 103 league goals in 140 appearances, coinciding with the arrival of coach Francesco Guidolin in the summer of 2010.
He too had bounced around, coaching teams as varied as Monaco, Palermo and tiny Treviso before landing back at the Friuli, and he immediately struck up an understanding with his skipper.
“He’s a great player. I’ve never had one like him.” Guidolin would tell Italian news agency ANSA, and he has helped nurse the striker’s ailing knees whenever possible over the past few seasons. Rarely training throughout the week, Di Natale has repaid the coach and Udinese with incredible loyalty and devotion.
When Juventus launched a public bid to sign Di Natale in 2010, he became one of very few players to reject the Turin giants, a move which confirmed his place in the heart of the Zebrette supporters. He would do the same on a much wider scale following the death of former team-mate Piermario Morosini in April 2012, who left behind a seriously disabled sister.
Aware that the she was now on her own after her parents passed away long before and another Morosini brother had taken his own life, Di Natale swore he would take care of her. “It is essential to stay by the side of Piermario’s sister for her entire life,” he said to Diretta Radio. “She needs us and we want to help, both for her and for Mario.”
So while his international credentials may have been tainted by his Euro 2008 penalty miss in the quarter-final loss to Spain or his club’s all too regular failings in Europe, Antonio Di Natale probably won’t care. As the man who rejected Juventus said when asked if he regretted not accepting a move to a big club, “I fear death, not football,” per Al Jazeera.