Home has always been where Antonio Di Natale’s heart is. Raised in Pomigliano d’Arco, a suburb of Naples, he moved to Tuscany at the age of 13 to join Empoli’s academy. After three days, a homesick Di Natale travelled 300 miles back to his family.
Having been tempted back to Empoli to spend the next decade at the club, Di Natale arrived in Udine in 2004. A historical city with a population of 100,000 people only 25 miles from the Slovenian border, Di Natale had found his perfect home. The man was not for moving.
The idea of a player as the personification of their club is an attractive one. Theo Walcott for Arsenal, Cristiano Ronaldo for Real Madrid, Andres Iniesta for Barcelona. Di Natale is not just part of Udinese, he is Udinese. Small in stature, continuously punching above their weight, achieving things far beyond the predictable.
“I think that what I’ve done with Udinese will go down in the history of the club,” Di Natale says. “I don’t see that as something insignificant. The truth is that I’ve found my natural home in Friuli and I’ve never thought about leaving a team, a town and a family – the Pozzos (Gianpaolo Pozzo is Udinese’s President) – who have adopted me like a son.” The theme of the family runs like a vein through many of Di Natale’s interviews.
Di Natale is not a superstar. He does not adorn billboards or have a pop star girlfriend, existing on the periphery of celebrity status where your name is known but the names of your children are not. He is a footballer in its simplest sense, a man who loves playing football, watching football and thinking about football. Now 38, Di Natale has been at the Stadio Friuli for 12 years.
Loyalty is an odd concept in modern football. Matthew Le Tissier recalls how he was complimented on his devotion to Southampton for his entire career, but that then immediately took on a negative connotation immediately after he retired. “Well done for staying” became “Why did you never play for a big club?”.
“It was a choice of life for me,” is Di Natale’s explanation for his loyalty. “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.”
Di Natale’s most famous rejection was given in 2010 to Juventus, who made their interest in Udinese’s striker public in a bid to force the club’s hand. When asked if he was scared of missing out on the big time after turning down such a prodigious club, the response was simple: “I fear death, not football.”
The player may dismiss his own loyalty, but that does not detract from its significance. While Paolo Maldini and Javier Zanetti, Serie A’s other one-club men, won 12 Serie A titles, six European Cups and five Coppa Italias between them, Di Natale has never won a trophy. Udinese’s only honours are the Anglo-Italian Cup in 1978 and the Intertoto Cup in 2000.
When Di Natale signed his last contract at Udinese, extending it by a year to the end of the current season, he increased his weekly salary from £18,000 a week to £23,000. Before doing so, he turned down a contract with Marcelo Lippi at Guangzhou Evergrande that would increase his wages by almost 800%.
Di Natale’s career is almost unique in a game where attacking players are peaking earlier and earlier. To take three examples, Lionel Messi’s two highest-scoring seasons came aged 24 and 25, Cristiano Ronaldo’s 25 and 28 and Wayne Rooney’s at 24 and 26. Di Natale’s came aged 32 and 34. He has scored more Serie A goals since turning 30 than Pippo Inzaghi, Hernan Crespo or Christian Vieri scored in their entire careers.
Even in Serie A, where the pace of the game traditionally allows players to peak slightly later, Di Natale is a striking exception. Having not made his top-flight debut until the age of 25, Di Natale scored only 47 Serie A goals before turning 30. After that, things got a bit silly.
In the five seasons between 2009 and 2014 (and the ages of 31 and 36), Di Natale scored 120 league goals. That total was beaten only by Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo in European football. You suspect that those two were getting better service than Di Natale.
Di Natale is not particularly quick. He is not physically imposing, and at 5’7” is unlikely to outjump many central defenders. Yet he has the perfect art of scoring goals. The first, second, third and fourth time the ball found him free in the penalty area in two yards of space, you would presume fortune or poor defending had played its part. By the 206th, 207th and 208th time, the explanation is clear. Di Natale is the king of timing.
Yet Di Natale didn’t only score simple goals. He is a wonderful free-kick taker, and capable of scoring from outside the area with either curling or rifled shots. It is a cliché that could apply to many great strikers, but when Di Natale shoots it feels as if the ball is magnetised towards the corner of the goal. Practice, practice, practice.
If Di Natale is a wonderful striker, he is an equally magnificent human. There is an unfair reaction of surprise when a footballer acts against unfavourable expectation. ‘Player does nice thing’ shouldn’t be headline-worthy; not everyone in the industry is an ignoramus. The minority spoil it for the majority.
Yet Di Natale goes further than most. In 2011, he was awarded the Pallone d’Argento award which is given to the player who is seen as ‘the most fairest and for football talent, sporting correctness, good morality and for generosity towards the weak’.
The most famous act of Di Natale’s kindness came in the wake of Piermario Morosini’s death in April 2012. Di Natale and Morosini had been teammates at Udinese. The midfielder died after suffering a cardiac arrest for Livorno against Pescara.
Morosini’s death was the latest in a long line of tragedies for the family. Piermario’s mother died when he was 15, his father at 17 and his disabled brother took his own life a year later. His disabled sister relied on Piermario’s income to pay for her continued residence in a care home. It was at this point that Di Natale intervened.
“We know the situation of his sister and we as a team, the club, and Udinese for Life 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.”
There will come a point when Di Natale stops playing. He has enjoyed fewer starts this season, as much responsible for nurturing Udinese’s younger strikers than scoring goals himself. He hardly ever trains to prolong his troublesome knees. The incessant passing of time stops for no man, no matter how wonderful he may be. Yet a Di Natale-less Serie A feels like an entirely alien concept.
“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,” said Di Natale in January 2014, when first retiring. “I care about Udinese, as this club is like my family.” Months later, his decision was reversed.
Some footballers run pubs, others try media careers. With Di Natale, it’s hard to imagine him not coaching Udinese’s youth team, combining gentle family life with regular visits to the Stadio Friuli, his second home. If those young players can take a fraction of Di Natale’s spirit, loyalty and professionalism, they will enjoy fine careers and fruitful lives.
Di Natale’s scoring record is formidable, of course, but the joy to be found in his career would not be lessened had he scored 50 or 100 fewer goals. Greatness is not only measured by the goals you score or trophies you win, but the difference you make. In that sense, he is greater than most.
Some find joy in success, some in financial reward and personal accolades. Others find joy in the moments: scoring a goal, having your name chanted by an adoring crowd, helping out a friend. To argue that Di Natale wasted his career is to only incriminate yourself, for he is working to different rules, a moral code. If chasing happiness and personal fulfilment is a crime, lock him up and throw away the key.