We like to talk a lot about our favourite cult hero’s and while they all have their merits, Antonio Di Natale may just lay claim to being the ultimate cult hero.
He was born in 1977 in an industrial town on the outskirts of Naples, a city noted for its loud and boisterous people, Di Natale was the opposite.
The son of a painter, the quiet and often solitary Antonio learned his football not with local side Napoli but with Empoli in the far north of the country.
While still a teenager he made the move north to Tuscany, breaking through into the first team at 19 - the same year he would meet the woman he would go on to marry.
49 goals in 158 games followed in eight fairly strong years followed as Empoli yo-yo’d between Serie A and B. A 2004 transfer to Udinese followed and - at least initially - the now 27-year-old Di Natale was solid but not remarkable.
While many could assume a forward famed for his pace could maybe have another five or six good years left, Di Natale had 12.
Between 2009, when he was already 33, and 2011 only Messi and Ronaldo scored more goals than his 67. Despite being well into his 30’s he received several lucrative contract offers from abroad, but he turned them all down. Club captain since 2007, Di Natale had developed a true bond with the club and the city his family called home.
By the time he hung up his boots in 2016, he had become the eighth-highest scoring Italian in history. His 311 putting him within 7 goals of the likes of Inzaghi, Totti and Baggio. While they plied their trade with the giants of Italian football, Di Natale did it all with Empoli and Udinese. Despite retiring aged 39 in 2016, nobody scored more Serie A goals in the 2010s than him.
There was, however, another reason why Di Natale never left Udinese. In 2012 tragedy struck Italian football when teammate Piermario Morosini collapsed and died of a heart attack while on loan at Livorno. Having already lost both of his parents by 25, Morosini was the sole career for his disabled sister. Nobody knew, at least publicly, but Di Natale had taken it upon himself to cover her care and visit her often.
A true example of a great player, but an even greater man.
Words by Andy Gallagher