Loyalty. In today’s game, no one really knows what the word means. Is it loyalty to a club? Are you loyal to anything in the game anymore? Agents and the nature of the game has changed what the word means and with football becoming more and more about the money every day, it prevents a certain type of player from being what they want to be.
Players like Paolo Maldini and Francesco Totti are one of a kind. They will be very hard to come across again. But there is another Italian striker who may not be a one-club-man like Maldini and Totti, but means just as much to a single club.
Antonio Di Natale is a striker that reminds us that football is more than just winning trophies. It’s about the raw emotions of those in the stands and how one player can bring a club together like he did with Udinese. The city of Udine fell in love with their hero, yet outside of the city he isn’t held with as much love or appreciation. Why? Why isn’t Di Natale recognized as one of the best strikers we have seen in modern Serie A and why didn’t he get more of a chance for the Azzurri?
Antonio grew up in the Pomigliano d’Arco suburb of Naples, where his love for football grew by every passing day. He worked on his game and moved to Empoli at the tender age of 13, his first experience of being away from home. Di Natale was homesick in Tuscany, and he even regularly travelled back 300 miles to be back with his family, even considering packing in the game altogether.
Had he not had the intervention of one person, we may never have had Antonio Di Natale and Udine would have had another hero. The person who talked Antonio into staying wasn’t a coach, wasn’t a family member but his hero: Vincenzo Montella.
Hailing from the same suburb of Naples, Montella was the main striker for Empoli at the time and convinced Antonio to stay at the club because he himself had gone through something similar in the early stages of his career. Di Natale stayed at Empoli and officially made his debut for the club in the 1996/97 Serie B season.
His five years at Empoli saw him score 55 goals in 177 appearances, a good return for a striker who literally tried to run away from the club at an early age! During his time at the club he showed how many different types of goals he could score. He wasn’t like Pippo Inzaghi who was a pure poacher; Di Natale had it all. One minute he was scoring a tap in from six yards out, the next he was curling a 30-yard free kick into the corner.
Of course, when you have been so productive in front of goal, clubs will come sniffing around, wanting a piece of what you have to offer. Empoli had just been relegated to Serie B once again and Di Natale was wanted. Udinese had been interested for a while, as they wanted a strike partner capable of complimenting Vincenzo Iaquinta. And they got slightly more than just a back-up striker.
It was the perfect match for both player and club, as Di Natale adapted to life in black and white quickly. He was joining a club who were comfortably established in the top 10 of Serie A and Di Natale was the man to take them to the next level. He loved the club, the fans and the city, and all three loved him back.
At the start of the 2004/05 season, Antonio was given the number 10 shirt and wore it with pride for the Zebrette. He was ready to give it all for his new club and it didn’t take long for him to open his account, scoring the opener in only his second match against Parma. He would end the season with a modest seven goals in Serie A, 11 in total, but this was only the beginning for Toto
Antonio didn’t need Scudetti; he didn’t need medals for people to see how great he was. Except, this was the problem. No one truly recognised during his time in Udine that he was a legend of Italian football. There is one moment in particular that really speaks volumes about how Toto was not only a great player, but a great human being.
In 2012, Piermario Morosini left Udinese on loan to join Livorno following various loan spells. During a match between Livorno and Pescara in Serie B, Morosini collapsed in the 31st minute with no one around him. The whole stadium was stunned into silence, not knowing what had happened, watching the medics try their hardest to save him.
Unfortunately, Morosini didn’t survive and later passed away tragically in the hospital. His death meant that his disabled sister, who relied on him heavily, was all alone and had no one to care for her. This is where Di Natale comes in. He insisted that Udinese support her no matter what and even stated that he would look after her if it came to that.
This is what Di Natale was all about. His good will, his desire to help those around him and to do good in life, not just on the pitch. Antonio was a good man; he helped those around him and wanted to be more than just a footballer. He was a hero, a role model to fans and players around the world.
Prior to this act, Di Natale was in the form of his life. He had set a new record of being the first Italian player to score in every single competition he played in across a single season. Eight in Serie A and seven across the domestic and continental cup competitions was an impressive return considering his age and the team he was playing in.
From 2006 to 2009 Di Natale had been hitting double figures regularly, scoring 40 goals across those three years, but it was in the 2009/2010 season where he really reached his peak.
For a player to reach his peak at 32 is strange, especially when he loses his partner in crime to a rival before he truly starts his rise, but all of this feeds into the legend of Toto. Only he could go to another level after the sale of Fabio Quagliarella to Napoli and rejecting the advances from Premier League side Liverpool.
He proved everyone wrong and that he was more than just a run-of-the-mill centre forward. His conversion rate of a goal every 0.8 games is remarkable and when he picked up his first Capocannoniere prize at the end of the season, it was truly deserved.
Di Natale started as he meant to continue against Parma in a 2-2 draw at the Stadio Friuli when he scored a late volley to steal a point; one of his best ever strikes. From that point on, it was nothing but goals for Antonio, who played like a man possessed.
A hat-trick against Catania was followed by another against Napoli, where he won the game with a 91st minute bicycle kick. This was the start of a run of a goal in each of his last seven games of the season to secure the Capocannoniere. To put his goals into context, he scored over half of Udinese’s goals that campaign and without Toto, they’d have finished rock bottom.
Following this tremendous season, Di Natale won the Italian Footballer of the Year award and was nominated for the Miglior gol, the goal of the season. This was just the beginning for Antonio; he was like a fine wine, getting better with age.
From 2009 to 2015, Antonio scored 134 goals and was only the second player to ever win back-to-back Capocannoniere. It was incredible for someone of his age, yet something was missing from his career. Despite his incredible goal record, Toto never managed to get a fair go at the Italian national team.
Maybe it was because of his age, style of play or the fact he was deemed unfashionable, but Di Natale always seemed to garner criticism whenever he pulled on the blue of the Azzurri. Eleven goals in 42 games isn’t a bad record, but it’s made to look worse when people are hoping you fail and are ready to call you a “big game failure”.
He was a veteran striker in a mid-table side, he was always going to be scapegoated. He was the scapegoat when Italy were knocked out of the 2010 World Cup, unfairly, but it always happens. Unfortunately, it was Di Natale who had to bear the brunt of the criticism.
Toto played out the rest of his career with the club who worshiped him as hero and managed to hit the 200-goal mark, something he promised to his father who had sadly passed away at that point. It was an emotional moment for everyone watching, but one that made you smile.
Antonio finally retired in 2016 after scoring 227 goals in all competitions across 446 games, standing sixth in the all-time Serie A top goal-scorers list, only a few ahead of the great Roberto Baggio. He scored more Serie A goals after turning 30 than Christian Vieri, Pippo Inzaghi and Hernan Crespo did, all strikers who have their names up in lights, so why doesn’t Toto?
He was an incredible striker for Udinese, a team he helped qualify for the Champions League and shape into relative overachievers. He set records and scored more goals than all but six players in the history of Italian football. Yet, no one recognises his greatness.
Was he really that unfashionable? Is it because he never won a Scudetto? Is 200 goals not enough to make someone great, or do titles conquer goals? Either way, what Antonio did in Udine is legendary. He inspired a generation of fans and was a class act off the pitch as well.
Antonio Di Natale, goal scorer, hero, legend of Udine.
Words by Tom Scholes: @TomScholes316