The Stadio Friuli looked different back then, certainly not as modern but it still had atmosphere. On the March 8 2014, Antonio Di Natale was wheeling away in celebration after tapping home from close range. There was nothing special about the goal, only that it came against Milan and it would go towards his league tally of 17 for the season. Even back then the cracks were beginning to show in the ‘Udinese model’ but now in 2018, as they face Milan again, the Zebrette are a shadow of their former selves. Only now there in no ‘Toto’ to save them.
Di Natale was Udine’s patron saint of football, there was no doubt about it. For years, those who frequented the Friuli, as it was known, enjoyed one constant. The goals of ‘Toto’ saw them reached unprecedented heights, as they nearly qualified for the group stages of the Champions League. The bond their number 10 had with the city was unbreakable, as his family adored the city that adored them. Some time ago his wife, Ilenia, had stopped a potential move to Juventus (Turin isn’t far from Udine) as their boys, Felipo and Diletta, were being schooled in the city. They had also taken care of Piermario Morosini’s disabled sister (the Livorno player died of cardiac arrest whilst playing) and Di Natale didn’t want to disturb her.
It came to be, that due to these reasons and the love he had for the club, the lethal striker went on to score 227 goals in 446 the Friulian’s. At the end, it had to be said, that his goal ratio was papering over some growing cracks, as despite the shiny renovations to what is now the Dacia Stadium, the owners were changing their focus. Now as Udinese enter their 23rd consecutive season in Serie A, the impact of the Pozzo family’s change of stance could see it be their last.
The ‘Udinese model’ had been admired for many years for being idealistic and yet effective. The idea was always to renovate the Stadio Friuli and keep a competitive team going in the top flight by employing a network of scouts that would pick up talent from all over Europe and especially South America. Owner Giampaolo Pozzo was enthralled in this project, he had brought them from Serie B and them executed his plan. It worked so well he soon owned clubs in Spain, Granada, and then English club Watford, with the idea of repeating this model.
The Pozzo methodology was to be the ‘happy feeder club’, making money from selling the star names and investing back into the youth system. Antonio Di Natale, Samir Handanovic, David Pizarro, Medhi Benatia, Luis Muriel, Kwadwo Asamoah, Alexis Sanchez and so many more were evidence of this success. The Wall Street Journal reported that between 2009-14, the club were making a loss but, with player sales, they turned profit of $26m - it was insane but brilliant.
The problem came with Watford and the continued rise of the Premier League. The money that the competition offered saw Udinese become second in the pile when it came to investment. This saw less scouting, less talent, less revenue and ultimately trouble. Now there were no Di Natales or Gokhan Inlers. Now there was Emmanuel Badu and, at best, Rodrigo Paul. Udinese saw the likes of Gerard Deulofeu and Roberto Pereyra go to Watford and things started to look bleak. While not abandoned by the Pozzo family, they are at best, treading water and this season has proved this. With nine points - two wins and three draws - coupled with five defeats, they sit in 16th place and are simply hoping that there are worse teams below.
As they get set to welcome Milan to the Dacia Stadium this weekend, they will be hoping that Kevin Lasagna or the like, can step up and give them a 1-0 win, just as they managed in 2014.
An away trip to Empoli is followed by the visit of Roma and they will be desperate to find some form. There is a strong possibility that they will survive and have 24 straight seasons in Serie A. Perhaps that wouldn’t even be good news. Perhaps if the Zebrette were eventually slip into Serie B, then it just may mean that the Pozzo’s come home and stop focusing on their English mistress.