As we enter the penultimate phase of the season, the footballing world is set to lose yet another gem as Udinese captain, Antonio Di Natale, has announced his retirement. The 36 year old former Italian striker is set to hang up his boots when the curtain falls this May.
Di Natale broke this news in the first week of January after Udinese’s 3-1 loss to Hellas Verona: “I’ve already made the decision, I’ve talked about it with my family and my agent. In June, it ends. I stop playing.”
Di Natale is synonymous to Udinese but he started his career with Empoli. It took time to establish himself. After 3 short loan spells, he finally broke into the team and earned them a promotion to Serie A. Di Natale helped them fight off relegation in their first season but couldn’t help them prevent the dreaded drop in the next, as Empoli got relegated. Following their relegation, Udinese came in and brought the striker for a low fee and thus kick started his journey with the club.
Termed somewhat as the late bloomer, Di Natale helped Udinese finish 4th in his first season and helped them earn the all important Champions league spot. Many clubs have come knocking for him over the years including his hometown team, but he has always remained faithful to a provincial club that has never won a major trophy in its 117-year history. Di Natale and Udinese are small in stature, but over the last decade they have both punched well above their weight.
“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.”
Since Di Natale joined Udinese he has been Serie A top scorer in the 2009-10 and 2010-11 seasons, and last term he was the leading Italian goalscorer with 23 strikes as Udinese finished fifth and bagged a place in the Europa League.
His reluctance to move has left many perplexed, as the dimension of the modern game is not what it used to be, money lures players to greener pastures and even the club gets greedy to cash in on their talent. Many have wondered whether ‘toto’ should have looked beyond Stadio Friuli and moved to a ‘bigger’ club for a better career but his love for the club and their fans held him back. He proved his loyalty when Juventus launched a public bid to sign Di Natale in 2010, he became one of very few players to reject the Turin giants, a move which confirmed his place in the heart of the Zebrette supporters.
Loyalty is a rare trait in football these days so we have all the more reason to hail this departing champion. With monetary temptation constantly hovering over these players only a few stand by their club and help them achieve their ambitions and Toto was one of them.
Unfortunately, his international career never really took off but he made most of it whenever he was called upon. His dullest moment was his penalty miss in the quarter-final loss to Spain in during the Euro 2008. He was also a part of the 2010 world cup where Italy finished last in their relatively easy group.
He was included in the squad for EURO 2012 where Italy lost to Spain in the finals. He did score a goal against Spain and that was the only goal they conceded in the whole tournament. He announced his retirement after the heart-breaking final loss with 11 goals against his name in 42 appearances.
Antonio Di Natale’s scoring record in Italy has been quite exemplary. He moved into select company after scoring his 187th SerieA goal which turned out to be the winner against Catania. The 36-year-old’s 68th-minute strike lifted Di Natale past Gabriel Batistuta. Now the former Italy international is eyeing a place further up the table, with former Lazio forward Giuseppe Signori and World Cup winner Alessandro Del Piero only a goal away on 188. With three games yet to play, Di Natale could see himself end his football career number seven in the charts, with Swedish striker Kurt Hamrin’s total of 190 looking more than attainable.
His skills and his hunger to score goals made him a better footballer but his loyalty and humility made him a better person. Toto won many hearts across the globe when his former team-mate Piermario Morosini died in April 2012 leaving behind a seriously disabled sister. She was on her own after her parents passed away long before and another Morosini brother had taken his own life, Di Natale swore he would take care of her. “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.” His gesture won many hearts and earned him a lot of respect.
As age catches up reflexes become slow but that still doesn’t change the influence a player has on the team. Nothing can keep his passion and professionalism for football away and this should be remembered and respected by the football community, particularly in a world today where players may be tempted by a better-paid contract over more playing time.
The match against Sampdoria on May 18th at StadioFriuli will be a highly emotional affair as he will bid farewell to his fans at home, a place where he mastered his trade. After serving the game for 17 years, let us pay homage to a great player, ambassador of the game, and a fine gentleman off the field, whose career would always be synonymous to qualities befitting that of an ultimate professional.
We don’t know whether the management or the fans will be able to convince Di Natale to stay but it looks difficult to see him change his mind. He loves his club as much as anyone can love anything, and the club and the city loves him back. What unconditional love can help a person achieve, nothing else can. I Salute you Toto, for putting the love of the game back in the game.
Grazie, Mister and Best of luck for the future!
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