“I saw 12 years flash before my eyes.” Antonio Di Natale was reflecting on his final match in a Udinese shirt and the end of what had been a career spanning some twenty years. Born in Naples in 1977, his footballing ability quickly became apparent and was picked up by Empoli’s youth academy. After three loan spells away from Florence, he was finally promoted to the first team and in 2002 helped the club earn promotion to Italy’s topflight with 16 goals. He spent two more years with Empoli until their relegation in 2004. With another season in Serie B looming he joined Udinese, the decision would later see him become firmly rooted in the hearts and minds of the small city’s population. During his time in the Friulli, Di Natale would score 191 goals in 385 appearances, excelling him as one of the leagues deadliest forwards and assisting his club to achieve Champions League football on a consistent basis. As Serie A’s top goal scorer for the 2009-10 and 2010-11 seasons, Di Natale won the Capocannoniere award as well as earning himself the honour of being named the Italian footballer of the year in 2010. The composed Italian would later pick up a runners-up medal at the 2012 European Championships but perhaps the biggest impression Di Natale had on Italian football were his tremendous principles, leadership qualities and sheer honesty – evidenced by two sportsmanship awards in 2011. He was not a footballer engrossed in celebrity culture or obsessed with achieving superstar status, nor was he focused on earning huge sums of money by selling his ‘brand’. His loyalty to Udinese was his focus, world-class players came and went, as did managers and backroom staff but Di Natale never considered relocating. He had found a home in the small northern city and it had found a place in his heart. Even at the age of 36 and close to retirement he turned down offers from China that would have seen his wages increase eightfold. The gentleman of Italian football was leaving an impression on those he encountered on and off the field. A man with the tough spirit and deep rooted culture of Naples in his blood had evolved into the quiet and good-mannered hero of North-East Italy.
There is one moment during Di Natale’s career that embodies his extraordinary persona and generosity. On 14th April 2012, Italian footballer Piermario Morosini collapsed suddenly whilst playing for Serie B team Livorno. Morosini had suffered a cardiac arrest and was subsequently rushed to the nearby Santo Spirito hospital where he was later pronounced dead. As Italian football mourned over the tragic loss of the talented 25-year-old, the Italian Football Federation quickly announced all Italian football league matches for the weekend were cancelled. Morosini had been loaned to the Tuscany club from Udinese. Born in 1986, Morosini had experienced a particularly heart-breaking youth, losing his mother in 2001 when he was just fifteen years old, and later, his father in 2003.
Later that year one of his disabled siblings, his brother Francesco, killed himself. This left 17-year-old Piermario alone and with no choice but to look after his disabled elder sister. Morosini had been popular with many footballers in Italy’s top tiered leagues. He had played for the national team at five youth levels and at 25 had played for five different Italian teams. Even with Piermario’s personal tragedy, he remained positive and it made him a popular asset to any team. In an interview with Guerin Sportivo in 2005, Morosini reflected on the unfortunate situations of his teenage years. “I have often asked myself why all this happened to me, but I never get an answer and that just makes it hurt more. But life goes on. These are things that mark you and change you… I want to become a great footballer for them more than anything, because I know how happy they would be.”
After the heart-breaking day of Morosini’s death, with world football still in shock, the future of his disabled sibling Maria was questioned extensively. With no living relatives and little money, it seemed like she would be forced out of her private residence and handled by social services. At this point, Morosini’s former teammate, Di Natale quickly intervened and urged his club and its charity to do the same. The player promised to financially support Maria along with Udinese’s charity Udinese per la Vita (Udinese for Life). Di Natale illustrating his humility and kindness had chosen to boldly stand and act, with the player saying soon after “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.” Di Natale continued playing football for a further four years, playing for his club the only way he knew how; with a smile on his face. His happiness, essence and sense of fair play was infectious, Antonio played football for one reason, he treasured the game dearly. Away from the spotlight of the sport, it was his compassion and gentle nature that shone brightest. He played his last game for the Zebrette in May 2016, scoring a penalty from the spot. Later that evening he climbed into the stands and celebrated his impressive career with the fans, he had created a special relationship with the supporters, building rapport on the foundations of mutual appreciation and honour. The gentlemen of Italian football had bowed out and exited the stage door. Many consider Antonio Di Natale to be one of the greatest footballers to ever grace the Serie A, his intelligence, pace and technicality showed his ability as a lethal striker and accurate creator. Meanwhile, his good nature and honesty turned him into a fan favourite and earned him respect from opposition teams and their supporters. If Di Natale continues his association with the sport, the next generation of young aspiring players will learn the importance of grace, loyalty and humility as well as understanding the positive influence happiness can have on our careers and life. Forza Di Natale.