Not one Italian made it onto the 22-man Ballon d’Or shortlist for the world’s second and third best players (after Lionel Messi), but the news did not provoke too much soul-searching on the peninsula. It was already known, after all, that only one Italian had made it onto the 49-man long list – and even then nobody all that special. You could hardly blame the voters for being underwhelmed by a pint-sized 34-year-old poacher playing out in the provinces.
That, after all, is the role into which Antonio Di Natale has been cast. Serie A’s top goalscorer in each of the past two seasons – and he is setting the pace again so far this campaign – Di Natale has struck an incredible 64 timesin 79 games and yet in the greater narrative of Italian football he will never be considered as a true leading man. Not after he chose the black-and-white stripes of a small club from Udine, over those of a giant one from Turin.
More than a year has passed since Di Natale turned down an offer to join Juventus and even now many observers seem unable to move on. Interviewed by the magazine Sportweek a few days ago, Di Natale once again found himself forced to defend the decision at length – despite the fact that in the intervening season Udinese had finished fourth, earning a spot in the Champions League preliminaries, while Juventus missed out on Europe altogether.
“I told president Pozzo that I would finish my career here, and I consider my word to be worth more than a signature on a contract,” explained Di Natale, before joking that as a Neapolitan he could hardly have signed for Juventus without having ever played for Napoli. The interviewer, unsatisfied with such a response, pressed on, accusing the striker of being afraid to test himself at a big club. “No,” replied Di Natale. “I fear death, not football.”
To the contrary, football is a source only of a joy for Di Natale – a man for whom the simple act of connecting ball with net represents the greatest of life’s pleasures. Even after the defeat to Slovakia which knocked Italy out of last summer’s World Cup, he was seen to leave the pitch with a grin – his disappointment at the result overridden by the satisfaction of getting his name at the scoresheet. “He has scored a goal at the World Cup, he can tell his nephews,” noted Gabriele Romagnoli in La Repubblica. “He has given what he had, chased every ball that he could. For him, that is enough.”
Less generous onlookers might draw another conclusion: that this is further evidence of the player’s lack of ambition, that a truly great player would have been disconsolate – just as his fellow goalscorer Fabio Quagliarella, a man who leapt at the chance to join Juve, appeared to be. Yet it is a safe bet that Quagliarella – stranded on the fringes of Antonio Conte’s team this season – would give anything to achieve Di Natale’s consistency of performance over the past two years.
The fact is that Di Natale has chosen to stay in Udine because he simply does not see the grass as greener on the other side. A quiet, family-oriented man off the pitch, he has built a life that he enjoys in Udine and remembers what it is like to lose such an environment. When he was first plucked from Naples to train with Empoli in Tuscany at 13, he became so homesick that within a matter of days he ran away. He would return and eventually settle for many years, but the memory never entirely left him.
And while a move to Naples might have been more palatable than Turin – Di Natale was the subject of an enquiry from Napoli a few years ago – even that would have its downside. Di Natale notes that he is still warmly received by everyone in the city whenever he visits his father or brothers, and that they are always grateful to have him representing their city. Were he playing for Napoli, such affection could very quickly evaporate if the team weren’t doing so well.
Of course there are also the conspiracy theorists who have accused Di Natale of simply giving in to his wife, Ilenia, over the move to Juventus – claiming she had not been interested in a move to Turin. Certainly it would not have been the first time he had left a major decision in her hands. It was Ilenia who proposed marriage in 2002 and she too who selected herself as Antonio’s date in the first place. “I asked if he was sure he wanted me and not my twin sister Genny,” she recalls. “He said: ‘either of the two would be fine.’”
In reality, though, the picture is more nuanced. Di Natale speaks often of the importance of family and it is very probable that he would have discussed any move, but he also has ties beyond his family in Udine. Most notably he is a partner in a coffee company that produces a brand bearing his nickname – Totò – and he has made significant investments in a football school, which employs 14 coaches and has 400 kids on its books.
“I have been here eight years. My life is here now,” he says, and if that means being overlooked for award shortlists then that is a consequence he can live with. “Scoring a more than sixty goals in just over two years is something that has not been done in Italy even by Ronaldo or Ibrahimovic. As an Italian, that is a source of honour. It was like winning two World Cups.”
That might be overstating it slightly, and while Brazil 2014 might be a bridge too far, Di Natale has not given up hope of making back into the Italy squad in time for a tilt at this summer’s European Championships. He has never made any secret of his desire to represent his country – and he has been disappointed not to play any part so far since Cesare Prandelli took charge of the Azzurri.
But the thing that will make Di Natale saddest as he reflects on his career may be the knowledge that it cannot go on forever. For over a year now, he has had to train apart from his team-mates on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, doing specialised aerobic work designed to extend his career at the top level, along with physio on his troublesome left knee. Already this seasons the manager Francesco Guidolin has had to rest him at times and it is no coincidence that Di Natale was absent for Udinese’s only defeat, at Napoli.
“We need to protect him,” acknowledged the team’s athletic trainer Paolo Artico yesterday. “But he is good because he gives the right signals, he lets us know when you can push him and when you shouldn’t. He is a perfect athlete – honest and he has added muscle. At this pace he can go on for another two years.”
That may not be enough to make it onto a Ballon d’Or shortlist. But as long as Di Natale keeps on scoring, he is unlikely to mind.