A fortnight ago Antonio Di Natale announced his retirement from football for the end of the season. Ahead of his swansong, Luca Cetta praises the Zebrette symbol.
You can picture it now. The first day of summer training for Italy’s football officials. Huddled together, the linesmen let out a massive cheer. Spumante is popped. It’s not because another season of scrutiny is forthcoming. Rather, they know their job this upcoming campaign will be just a little easier.
“The decision has already been made,” announced linesman-tormenter Antonio Di Natale on January 6. “I talked it over with my family and my agent, so I’ve decided this is my last campaign. It all ends in June.”
He may not have been born offside like Filippo Inzaghi, but he’s called the area home for years. For nearly two decades Di Natale has made officials quiver. Now it’s almost over. The next 18 games represent Toto’s last. A player who got better with age.
Di Natale will be remembered as an Udinese icon. He – along with Coach Francesco Guidolin – has been the biggest contributor to the Zebrette’s recent rise. It was a pity they could not top it with a place in the Champions League group stage, despite two Play-off round appearances.
He has come to represent Udinese. In an ever-changing squad, captain Di Natale has remained a constant following his 2004 switch from Empoli. He feels at home in Udine. In the face of strong interest from Juventus in 2010, Di Natale flat out refused the more illustrious Bianconeri. “It was a choice of life for me,” he said soon after. “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.”
Why Juve so keenly chased a player then aged 32 was clear. Di Natale had just netted an incredible 29 goals in 35 appearances. This for a team which finished three places above the relegation zone. Toto accounted for more than half Udinese’s 2009-10 goal tally.
His loyalty to the Friuli club – some may say he remained a big fish in a small pond – was vindicated. Di Natale continued to find the net with alarming regularity. He scored 28 times a season later, meaning in two terms Di Natale had outscored his first five for the club. Capocannoniere on both occasions, the Naples native added 23 apiece the next two seasons – totalling 103 goals in 140 games.
“Di Natale is a rare animal who can do things normal people cannot,” Guidolin exclaimed last year. “He’s a great player. I’ve never had one like him.”
The feat was made all the more remarkable considering there was apprehension about his future in March 2009. Playing for Italy Di Natale injured his knee and missed the remainder of the campaign. Training to this day is limited to up to three times a week because of his knee. That Toto came back so strong was a testament to his will.
That toughness has resonated throughout his career. Having left his hometown to train with Empoli aged 13, a homesick Di Natale ran away after only a few days. Yet he forged ahead and made his debut for Empoli in 1997. Then came two seasons on loan for three clubs in the third and fourth divisions.
Di Natale’s international debut arrived in November 2002 following an impressive year and a half in Tuscany. Five additional caps followed in four years, all friendlies. Toto became a regular after the 2006 World Cup and stayed one through to Euro 2012.
That tournament holds Di Natale’s fondest Azzurri memory, the opening goal in the Group C clash with Spain. Yet he never truly translated devastating club form to the international arena and ends with 11 goals in 42 Italian appearances.
Even if his time in the blue shirt did not pan out as hoped, his popularity in Udine could not wane. Even if there have been grumblings this term, as his goal return dries up – just five – and the team struggles. “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.” Like any family there are disagreements, but undying love.
The club are hoping to change his mind. “We can convince Di Natale not to retire at the end of the season,” director of sport Christian Giaretta commented last week. “He still has another year left on his contract. His comments were just an outburst after a defeat, but this week he seemed calmer.”
But for now, Di Natale’s final Serie A appearance is set for May 18 at home against Sampdoria. On that day ends a fine career. Toto may not go down as one of calcio’s all-time greats, but the Friulani will have one hell of a time replacing him.