Despite a twenty-year playing career commencing in 1996, the name of Antonio Di Natale is perhaps not as well-known in Britain and other places as many of his Italian peers from that particular playing era.
Given that Di Natale spent his entire career playing in his Italian homeland for seemingly unfashionable clubs such as Empoli, Udinese and various loan spells at Iperzola, Varese and Viareggio, it is perhaps not surprising that his name is relatively anonymous when compared with such luminaries as Pirlo, Maldini, Di Baggio and company.
However, it would be wrong to underestimate the prowess or career of a man who made over six hundred league appearances scoring more than two hundred and fifty times in a two-decade spell.
Signed as a junior to Empoli, then in Serie B, Di Natale made his league debut in the 1996-97 season before going out on loan spells to lower league sides Iperzola, Varese and Viareggio. If these loan spells were disheartening at the time, Di Natale never complained and each stint away from his parent club assisted in rounding off some of his rough edges.
Of particular benefit was Di Natale’s season-long loan at Viareggio in the 1998-99 season, when the twenty-one-year-old scored twelve times in twenty-five league appearances. This prepared him for his return to Empoli and he secured a regular starting spot in the Serie B league season for 1999-2000.
Five seasons then ensued with Di Natale finding consistency as Empoli’s main striker. Although just five foot seven inches, Di Natale played with both a strength and mobility that enabled him to flourish while leading the line. He possessed a fierce shot and was an accurate dead-ball specialist.
Deployed either as a lone striker, a wide player, or ‘in the hole’, Di Natale helped Empoli to promotion to Serie A in 2002, and his goals ensured a two-year spell in Italy’s top flight followed.
However, relegation in 2004 could not be avoided, and with it came Di Natale’s logical and anticipated transfer. Udinese made an offer for Di Natale along with Empoli teammates, Manuel Belleri and Emilson Cribari, that was accepted and so the trio once more lined up for the 2004-05 together.
Di Natale was to play for Udinese for the next twelve seasons and make close on four hundred league appearances. His dozen years there elevated him to legendary status and the mantle of one of the club’s greatest and most revered players of all time.
A satisfactory debut season saw Udinese finish in the fourth spot in Serie A and so qualify for the Champions League. A decent run in the competition saw the club just miss out on qualification for the last sixteen.
Although no major trophies were won during his time at Udinese, Di Natale was instrumental in keeping Udinese established as one of the sides just outside the elite of Italy. Udinese often challenged for European slots, and with Di Natale scoring regularly, the club managed a third-place Serie A finish in the 2011-12 season.
Seen as a reliable professional and an inspiration to others, La Natale was awarded the captaincy of Udinese in 2007. His best season for goals came in the 2009-10 season when he was top goalscorer in Serie A with twenty-nine league goals. This was an achievement that saw him crowned Serie A Italian Footballer of the Year.
That summer, Italian giants Juventus attempted to sign Di Natale but he rejected the opportunity to move to Turin, stating that he and his family were happily settled at Udinese.
A further opportunity to move arose in 2013 when he was offered a reputed annual salary of € 10 million to join up with former Italian national coach Marcello Lippi at Chinese club Guangzhou Evergrande. Once again, he rejected the offer and opted to remain at Udinese.
Despite twice declaring his impending retirement in 2014 and 2015, it was not until the spring of 2016 that Di Natale finally called it a day. By this time he was just 5 months short of his 39th birthday.
The sixth-highest Serie A goalscorer of all time, Di Natale appeared forty-two times for Italy, scoring eleven times in a ten-year spell from 2002 onwards.
Highlights of his international career included appearances in the World Cup of 2010 and European Championships of 2008 and 2012, where Di Natale appeared as a substitute in the losing final against Spain.
Although deciding to play his entire career in Italy and indeed rejecting the opportunity to move to so-called ‘bigger’ clubs, Di Natale’s legacy is secure. He is Udinese’s top goal scorer as well as holding the record for most appearances, and was twice top goal scorer in the whole of Serie A.
While it is true that his might not be a very-top-drawer household name outside of Italy and Udinese in particular, those privileged enough to have seen him play will not forget him or his contribution to his beloved Udinese.