An Ode To Antonio Di Natale

Loyal to a provincial club and possessing enough self-awareness to rightly estimate football's real importance, it's easy to wax lyrical about Antonio Di Natale...

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It was the news that silenced Udine. On January 6th, following Udinese's 3-1 home defeat to Hellas Verona, Antonio Di Natale announced that he would retire at the end of the season. "I've already made the decision," he said. "I've talked about it with my family and my agent. The club will know soon, but I'll stop playing in June." The Friuli entered into mourning.

Five months later and sorrow had become celebration, Di Natale reversing his decision following a final-day hat-trick against Sampdoria. "I am bound to Udine and to Udinese for another year by contract," was the simple statement, 13 words to breathe renewed life into every supporter of the Zebrette.

Scoring three goals in front of an adoring crowd would have been a wonderful way to end a majestic era, but there was little sense in Udine that Di Natale had passed up a fitting send-off. His is a career that no-one should want to conclude, because with it will end a link to the past, a glorious relic of football yesteryear. The term 'anachronistic' is too often used in a derogatory sense, but with 'Toto' Di Natale such a label is meant with glowing admiration. This is one of the game's true heroes - half champion, half Everyman.

To simply praise Di Natale for his commitment to Udinese would be to entirely understate his importance. He is not part of the club for he is the club - small in stature but continuously punching above his weight, achieving things far beyond the predictable.

Perhaps loyalty has become an overpaid compliment in modern sport. Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, Paulo Maldini and Javier Zanetti are all rightly cherished for their desires to give their love to just one club (so don't shout at me), but all did so against a backdrop of success and handsome remuneration. That is not to undermine or devalue their devotion, but to remain loyal to a provincial club whose only honours are the Intertoto Cup in 2000 and the 1978 Anglo-Italian Cup takes a fidelity approaching consecration.

Although Maldini took a 30% paycut to remain at the San Siro for his final four years, his salary was still €5million a year (or €96,000 a week), whilst Giggs was paid £75,000 a week during his final playing season at Old Trafford. As a comparison, the last contract signed by Di Natale at Udinese is believed to have made him the highest paid player in the club's history. It is worth £23,000 a week.

Rejecting the economic overtures of Juventus in 2010, Di Natale stayed in the mountains to achieve things with Udinese that none thought conceivable. "It was a choice of life for me," Di Natale said of Juventus' offer. "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."

Even those that remain stoically loyal are forgiven for giving in to the attraction of that most tempting of sporting abstracts, the last hurrah. The rapid investment into leagues in USA, Qatar, United Arab Emirates and the Far East allows players to land a guaranteed double six with their final roll of the dice, drowning in footballing obscurity but financial rapture. Even on this level, Di Natale has stayed true - reports have surfaced in the last few days that Chinese club Guangzhou Evergrande (managed by Marcello Lippi) offered to increase his wages by 800% for one season. A Dubai club made a similar proposal, but both were rejected.

Questioned by Al Jazeera as to whether he would live to regret his rejection of Juventus, Di Natale was typically philosophical. "I only fear death, not football," he responded, indicative of an individual that possesses enough self-awareness to understand that football remains 'only a game'. In a country in which football obsession too often spills over into fan violence, it's a refreshing stance. This is an unfashionable striker at an old-fashioned club, whose family life comes above any hopes of glamour, fame or success.

Never has Di Natale's balanced nature been more apparent than after the tragic death of Piermario Morosini, a Udinese player who died after suffering a cardiac arrest whilst playing on loan for Livorno against Pescara. Morosini's parents had both died when Piermario was a teenager, and his disabled brother passed away a year later to continue a genuinely heartbreaking set of events. Following the midfielder's passing, his disabled sister was left orphaned and financially vulnerable (she relied on her brother to support her life in a care home), but Di Natale immediately sought to relieve a terrible situation.

"We know the situation of his sister and we as a team and club have decided to help her because she is in real need," Di Natale said. "It is essential to stay by the side of Piermario's sister for her entire life. She needs us and we want to help, both for her and for Mario." In a sport that seems willing to ever separate itself from morality, it's an anecdote that demands admiration.

However, whilst loyalty and compassion are commendable attributes, to focus purely on Di Natale's personal qualities would be to do disservice to the striker's record. This is not a career that, like so many others, has simply meandered to a close, petering out in a spate of substitute appearances, sluggish movement or dropping down the leagues in a wilful blindness to faltering ability.

Instead, Di Natale's career has peaked in its autumn. In part due to his professionalism, but surely also due to his fervent desire to carry his team to success, this is that most rare of footballing entities, the late-blooming striker. Despite the usual age for a forward to peak sitting somewhere between 24 and 27 (with Serie A forwards probably towards the upper limit), Toto has turned such expectations on their head.

Before turning 30 in October 2007, Di Natale had never scored more than 16 goals in a league season, his career league goalscoring ratio well below one for every three matches played. Since then, 149 Serie A goals have followed in seven seasons, the most of any Italian player over that period.

Over the last five years (between the ages of 31 and 36, remember), Di Natale has 120 league goals - that's a total beaten only by Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo in European football (as a comparison, Zlatan Ibrahimovic has 114, Luis Suarez 111, Edinson Cavani 107, Robin van Persie 95 and Wayne Rooney 93). That Udinese's average league position over that period is 7.6th (Barcelona and Real Madrid's have been 1.4th and 1.8th respectively) indicates just how impressive such a record is, particularly given it has been achieved in a league with noticeably fewer goals than Spain or England. Since August 2009, Di Natale has personally scored 43% of the Zebrette's goals.

Without considerable height or lightning pace, it is Di Natale's finishing that sets him apart. Like Pippo Inzaghi before him, his principal weapon is the timing of his runs whilst on the shoulder of the last defender. Once clear, he is usually deadly, a shot accuracy of 57% over the last two Serie A seasons, and only three of his 40 goals in this period have been from outside the area.

There is an intense joy to be found in Di Natale's late blooming. Without unnecessarily resorting to sugary cliché, this is a career that provides hope that there are more than just the conventional routes to achieving our desires, teaches us that age is not necessarily a limitation and that opportunities in life can come later than we expect.

Of course, Di Natale could have had more winners' medals and far greater exposure but, naturally, he is impassive over such suggestions. "I've played in the Champions League, the UEFA Cup, two European Championships and a World Cup," Di Natale once stated. "I could've won more elsewhere, but I made my choice and I do not regret it. I'd do it all over again." He may have missed out on much fame and fortune, but Di Natale gains infinitely more pleasure out of the adoration of the Bianconeri supporters - he is guaranteed that for life.

In a sport ever increasingly obsessed by celebrity, those who produce excellence away from the limelight should become the most cherished. Di Natale is not a superstar. He does not adorn billboards, collect astronomical wages or have a pop star girlfriend (he met his wife Ilenia Betti when aged just 19). Nor does not revel in personal accomplishments. Instead, he acts as a link to the past, a romanticised time when footballers were content to just be footballers, and bloody good at it. It's an incredibly appealing disposition.

Di Natale's record is formidable, of course, but he would surely insist that greatness is measured not by the amount of goals you score but of the impact you have, of the difference you make. In that sense, he is greater than most.

The interminable debates over the biggest, best, fastest and most famous may never see Di Natale's name merit discussion, but you would struggle to find a player that has made a bigger difference, not just for Udinese but any Italian team. An Udinese without Toto Di Natale is barely Udinese at all.

Daniel Storey - Follow him on Twitter

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