Despite a twenty-year calcio playing career which commenced in 1996, the name of Antonio Di Natale is perhaps not as well-known as many of his Italian peers from the era when Serie A was broadcasted across the UK via Football Italia.
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, Batistuta and company.
However, it would be wrong to underestimate the skill 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.
Antonio Di Natale was born on October 13, 1977 in Naples. He grew up in St. Nicholas of Castello di Cisterna, in the Neapolitan hinterland. 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 played its part in his personal development.
Di Natale completed his loan spell with Viareggio, who played their trade in Serie C2, he played 25 games and scored 12 goals: practically, a fantastic average of one goal every two games. This prepared him for his return to Empoli and earned him a regular starting spot in the Serie B league season for 1999-2000.
Recalled by Empoli, he played for five seasons for the Gli Azzurri three in Serie B and two in Serie A. During this time Totò showcased his strength and mobility, despite being only 5ft 7inch his ability to lead the line was evident, Totò also possessed a fierce shot and was building a reputation as a bit of a dead-ball specialist.
Empoli were relegated from Serie A 2004, and with it came the transfer of Di Natale to Udinese. In Udine he quickly formed a relationship with David Di Michele and Vincenzo Iaquinta an exceptional attacking trio, leading the Friulians up to fourth place in the league, and with it qualification for the Champions League preliminaries. A decent run in the competition saw the club just fall short on qualifying for the last sixteen.
The following season, however, Totò became the only Italian to have scored at least one goal in the Champions League, Italian Cup, League and Uefa Cup. Udinese reached the semi-finals of the national cup, while in the Champions League against Werder Bremen Totò scored three goals.
His growing reputation as both a professional and an inspiration to others seen him being 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 crowned the Calcio Capocannoniere.
“Udinese taught me work ethic and respect. The only team I would have loved to play for, for the atmosphere and the stadium, is Liverpool.”Totò, Daily Mail
The following year The 2010/2011 season started a little subdued, but Totò recovered his form thanks to two hat-tricks against Lecce and Napoli. The now Captain of Udinese, showed that he was no one season wonder. Leader on and off the pitch, Di Natale fired his teammates up to third place in the league, silencing his doubters and keeping the I Bianconeri fans dreaming. Natale finished the season with another title as Capocannoniere, thanks to twenty-eight goals scored. His form over the last two seasons was pure fire, scoring 57 goals in 71 appearances in what was deemed as one of the greatest defensive leagues in the world.
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. After leading the Friulians once again to third place, Di Natale was summoned by Prandelli for the European Championships in Ukraine and Poland.
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 and enjoyed living in Udine. Di Natale also took financial responsibility for the disabled sister of Udinese teammate Piermario Morosini, who died on 14 April 2012 when he suffered a sudden cardiac arrest while playing on loan for Livorno. This kind gesture is another fine testament to the character of Di Natale, which goes to show how close his bond to the white and black of Udinese was.
“The truth is that I’ve found my natural home in Friuli and I’ve never thought about leaving a team, a town and a family – the Pozzos – who have adopted me like a son.”Totò, interview with fifa.com
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.
Di Natale played for Udinese for twelve seasons and made three hundred and eighty five appearances for the little zebras. His hard work and loyalty elevated him to legendary status within the club, Totò writing his name in history as the clubs leading goalscorer with 191 goals. He also leads in terms of appearances in the white and black.
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.
While it is true that Di Natale might not be a very-top-drawer household name outside of Italy, those privileged enough to have seen him play will not forget him or his contribution to his beloved Udinese.