Francesco Totti, Roma icon and the leading active Serie A goal scorer, is the last Italian player to conquer all of Europe when it comes to finding the net. Not since 2006-07 has a native of the peninsula – Totti – claimed the prestigious European Golden Shoe and a glance at the Serie A top scorers suggests it might be a while before it happens again. But if there is a player who can top the goals chart across the continent, it might be the evergreen Antonio Di Natale.
Di Natale has this year defied his advancing years to land a lofty place in the Capocannoniere running as the turn of the year approaches. And although there are other Italian forwards around the 37-year-old’s tally, there aren’t many as remarkable as the man from Naples.
He’s been at Udinese for a decade now, having started his career far from home in Empoli. After loan spells at Iperzola, Varese and Viareggio, enjoying varying degrees of success, Di Natale began to make his mark at Stadio Carlo Castellani. He hit double figures in three straight seasons between 2000 and 2003 but a relative goal drought – six in 35 in all competitions – saw the Azzurri return to Serie B.
His first year in Udine was a far cry from the struggles at his old club. Udinese finished fourth in 2003-04 and he claimed 11 goals, seven in the league, as part of an attack that also featured Vincenzo Iaquinta and David Di Michele. Di Michele led the way with 15 Serie A goals but Di Natale wouldn’t take a back seat for long.
By 2007 he was Udinese captain and under a long-term deal, responding with a career-best 18 goals in 2007-08. Di Natale was in his early 30s by that point and observers could have been forgiven for assuming he had just peaked, and was to see out his days chipping in with goals here and there, supporting a younger colleague – particularly at the Bianconeri, with their habit of turning up rough diamonds.
And yet the opposite was the case – Udinese began to rely on Di Natale more than ever. In 2009-10 he set a new club record for goals with 29 and proved it was no fluke with 28 the next year and 29 the season after. While there were strikers who scored more goals than Di Natale in a single season, few did it with such consistency and at a time when, by all rights, they should have been winding down, not stepping up.
So Di Natale goes on. 20 last year and double figures already in this confirm Di Natale’s credentials. He’s scored at better than a goal every other game throughout his career, won international recognition as part of the squad that finished runners-up in Euro 2012, and is now fully appreciated – not only by Udinese but by calcio as a whole. It might be a while before we see his like again.