Antonio Di Natale

Lights shine brightly in the home locker room at the Friuli Stadium. Yet, the spotlight is all on one man tonight. Seated at his usual place in the dressing room, today is not another normal match day for him. His focus is very much on the upcoming 90 minutes of football, but also on the years of his life spent here. After having played over 450 games for the club, this is the end of the road. He has hurt himself during the warm-up, but nothing is going to stop him from having his farewell. When he goes onto the field, he will score. He is going to sign off in style. And when he sits down in the locker room and looks back at the 12 years he’s spent here, this unflappable character will sob. First gently, then shaking with emotion.

This is the tale of those memories flashing before his eyes. A 12-year long tale, with Udinese. A story, whose protagonist had two main traits. One was tangible, the other priceless. The first was his silky feet, the second his loyalty to the legions who loved him. This is Antonio Di Natale’s saga.

Di Natale had done a lot of his initial work at Empoli. His goals helped the side gain promotion to Italy’s top flight for the 2002-03 campaign. Empoli could not avoid the doom of the drop back into the lower division for long, however. Di Natale would be starting 2004-05 with a new club. Le Zebrette wanted the services of this talented forward. After having spent close to a decade with Empoli, he was getting on as well. At 26, he would have realized his window of time to make a mark on Italy’s top flight was not limitless. And so, he moved.  A talented player from a relegated side signed up for a low fee by an aspiring club? To those watching, it seemed a very routine thing. Yet the impact the move would go on to have would be anything but routine.

Di Natale was slow to get started. There was no fairytale-like instant impact that he had on his side. His first three years at Udinese were underwhelming, with tallies of 7,8 and 11 goals. While Di Natale was steadily average, if not spectacular, his club were lurching from high to low, with no pattern. In his first campaign, the club secured a Champions League spot. By his third, in 2006-07, they were placed tenth, far from where they wanted and needed to be. Having sacked their coach mid-season, Udinese were entering the new campaign with a fresh face on the touchline. It was in these trying circumstances that a new figure was chosen to lead the club. Someone, who just like his club, had a point to prove and a legacy to establish. Enter new skipper, Antonio di Natale.

The club were unpredictable, more wildly than ever before. A 15th place finish in 2009/10 was followed by two years of finishing in the top four. Di Natale’s career had been steadily and languidly moving along. In 2009, a blue touch paper caught fire. Suddenly in explosive goal-scoring form, Udinese’s skipper came to define their campaigns, year in, year out. In 2009/10, a 31-year-old Di Natale racked up a heavy haul of 29 goals in Serie A. He would follow this campaign up with three more stellar ones, at an average goal tally for those four seasons of 25.75.

MILAN, ITALY – JANUARY 24: Diego Milito (L) and Antonio Di Natale (R) attend the “Oscar Del Calcio AIC 2010” Italian Football Awards. (Photo by Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images)

Di Natale was born in Naples, a city renowned the world over for its fine wine. And he was ageing better than any wine sourced from his hometown. Yet while his goals gained him worldwide acclaim, not a lot has been written of his leadership. He was not the captain of a big name superpower. History is not full of tales of how he gave his team-mates an earful. Nor does it have any images or videos of him holding silverware aloft. For all the goals scored and magic weaved, he would never carry home a single winner’s medal, in any competition. So what did he bring that set him apart, and cemented his place at the table of football’s finest leaders?

In an era where money and influence reign supreme, the charm of our game has slowly been on the wane. Footballers will always hold a lot of clout in our imagination and popular culture. They, after all, get to do for a living what the rest of us spend hours dreaming about. They are the subject of millions of people’s affection. And so, the biggest asset that footballers possess is not wealth or adulation, it is influence. Their every action has the potential to rub off on the legions that adore them.

Di Natale’s actions were defined by his strong convictions in the power of community and loyalty. Those attributes came to define his time at Udinese as captain. As he showed examples of his belief in those values, his colleagues and fans of the club started to imbibe them as well.

It is only possible to buy into the vision that a leader has for an organisation of people if their colleagues realize that the leader themselves is committed to the project. After all, there is no hope of inspiring people to be passionate about a cause, or a club, if the captain himself is unsure! Di Natale had taken a few years to get going initially. The club had stuck by him, and that probably spurred him on to keep on delivering. During the years of his explosive goal-scoring form, the club was inconsistent. Mid-table finishes were not uncommon. For all his toil and graft, all that he could reap in return were Champions League place finishes, at best. Yet, he never downed tools. Nor did he ever get swayed by the bids other suitors made for him.

In 2010, post his 29 goal campaign, Juventus made a public bid to pry Udinese’s captain away from the Friuli. If he had moved, it is probably safe to assume that his goals would have been amply rewarded, with Scudetto titles. Not to mention the lucrative contract that he would have been offered. Yet he stated –

It was a choice of life for me. I feel so good here in Udine, and the president’s family have always made me feel like I was one of them. Some things are worth more than money.

It is often very easy to get sucked into football and its passions. The game is deeply emotive and brings out fiery tribalism in all of us. On occasion, moments occur that shake all of us as a collective. We realize that all the rivalry, banter, joy and pain are part of a mere game.

Piermario Morosini was an Udinese midfielder out on loan at Livorno. While playing a game against Pescara on April 14, 2012, the player suffered a fatal cardiac arrest. Morosini’s parents had died when he was very young. His brother had taken his own life a year after the loss of their father. Morosini’s disabled sister had relied on his income to pay for her stay at a care centre. Without him, her future seemed bleak. Enter Antonio Di Natale.

VERONA, ITALY – APRIL 21: (L-R) Antonio Di Natale, Andrea Coda and Samir Handanovic of Udinese wear T-shirts in memory of Italian footballer Piermario Morosini. (Photo by Dino Panato/Getty Images)

He remarked, “We know the situation of his sister and we as a team, the club, and Udinese for Life have decided to help her because she is in real need. 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.” They say that leading at the best of times is easy. After all, one simply stays the course and ensures cruise control is smooth. Real challenges, under extraordinary circumstances, call for powerful leaders with the conviction to ensure the right thing is done. Di Natale had swung his club into action immediately and in the process, he had earned the admiration of the footballing world at large. Udinese had demonstrated the power of community, their skipper’s guiding ethos.

And so we return, to the locker room at the Friuli. It is 15th May 2016 and the curtain is about to fall on his illustrious career. He is going to finish with a goal against Carpi. It will be goal number 191 in Serie A. As the media write glowing reports on his career, do they wonder how he took the profound decisions he did, so calmly, almost nonchalantly? He might have just let the cat out of the bag himself. When the media asked him if he regretted missing out on a move to Juventus, he had said, “I fear death, not football.

Written by Anirudh Madhavan

Read all the other features in the Series by heading over to the Captains homepageCarles Puyol

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