Ever been tabbed to speak at someone’s going away party?
It’s a more exigent task than you’d imagine. It necessitates an examination of your relationship with that person yet simultaneously compels you to divorce yourself from it, because if you truly care about them, it becomes impossible not feel a little sad, a little hurt, a little abandoned that they’re moving on.
As the captain of a midtable side, I imagine Antonio Di Natale is well-versed in that conflict, at least in psyche if not actual practice. From David Pizarro to Vincenzo Iaquinta, Fabio Quagliarella to Alexis Sanchez, Di Natale has watched his contemporaries at Udinese saunter out the door for better opportunities at bigger clubs, leaving him to recite staid dialogue and dutifully hand out cake before shouldering another share of club’s ballast. Somewhere along the way, he became Sam Waterston in Law & Order, perpetually standing still as his recast cohorts drift further away from his date of birth but stubbornly refusing to start over someplace else. And — as is also the case with Waterston — you invariably stumble upon at least one Udinese match per season when you weren’t even looking for one, only to find Di Natale making one of his usual imperious runs through traffic and you incredulously blurting out things like, “Wait, he’s still there?!” and, “Doesn’t he have somewhere else better to be?”
At 34, he’s evolved into the curator role that seems to be ubiquitous among strikers at smaller clubs, each goal a defiant lash against the eternal wave of change that, with every whim of the transfer window, erodes the foundation of the place he worked to preserve. Some seasons, like last year’s fourth-place finish and Champions League berth, he succeeds in disrupting its path; other times it bests him, as it did in the nerve-racking 15th place finish from two years ago that left Udinese mere points from the drop. But, by casting his lot with this club, Di Natale’s battles never are not about that Wave. The stated objective for him and players of his ilk may be avoiding relegation or qualifying for Europe, but the undercurrent is one of preservation, and of tirelessly punching the clock toward that aim until their aging legs no longer cooperate.
There is, however, a mitigating factor that distinguishes the man they call Toto from his counterparts within that archetype: choice. He isn’t Sergio Pellisier, whose limited talent never lent itself toward ambitions much grander than staying the course at Chievo, nor is he Marco Di Vaio, whose convalescence at Bologna only came about after repeated failures at larger clubs pressed him into servitude a la Jon Snow getting banished to the Wall. He isn’t even Fabrizio Miccoli, whose similarly pint-sized stature marooned him at Palermo. Di Natale, with his 36 caps for the Italian national team and his consecutive Capocannoniere titles, had options; namely Juventus, who two years ago inquired over him swapping the black-and-white stripes of his present outfit for a set with considerably more luster. And despite the only impediment between him and a starting job at the most successful side in Italy being a preponderance of mediocrity in Iaquinta, Amauri, and Alessandro Del Piero, he turned them down.
You probably don’t need me to tell you that this is unusual. Athletes tend to be predisposed to upward mobility. Competition is hardwired into their brain stems, and the logical conclusion is to pursue that aim to be the best at what they do as far as they can take it, climbing the ladder as high as possible until they hit their ceiling — which, for the exceedingly vast majority of soccer players, is well below the fairly universal ambition of starring at [insert big club here]. They forsake dreams for security, ambition for comfort, desire for necessity like people in every profession, but it comes with a different sort of value judgment; compromise, in the unbending arena of sport, almost always equates to some measure of failure.
I’m pretty certain Antonio Di Natale is cognizant of all of that; he just doesn’t appear to have any use for it, which is what makes his career arc so peculiar. He isn’t compromising his dream, because nothing has ever forced him to reconcile his vision of what his career should be with what it wound up being; you can’t experience failure if you never take a shot at something to begin with — and with all due respect to Serie A’s second-oldest club, there is no conceivable reason why Di Natale, who grew up on the other side of Italy, would ever envision Udinese, which hasn’t a single domestic league or cup trophy to its name in over a century of competition, to be his greatest aspiration. What we’re left with, then, is someone who goes beyond merely accepting the fact that he won’t reach the heights he once saw for himself. He actively embraces it.
It’s easy to point to loyalty as the reason behind all of this, and certainly it plays a part; by Di Natale’s own admission, both the club and the city have treated him well over the years, plus you don’t say no to Juventus unless you’re awfully fond of your current digs. But I wonder if those factors manifest in self-awareness more than simple allegiance. Di Natale borders on divinity in Udine, the man who miraculously brought Champions League soccer to a town with a shade over 100,000 residents twice in the past six years. Even if he went to Juventus and snatched up goals and trophies by the truckload, none of it would have mattered more to the fans than toiling against the Wave at Udinese. Oh, he’d accomplish things of significance and shine on a grander stage, but Toto was never going to transcend time so much as become a footnote among a certain generation of fans, a secret handshake exchanged some two decades from now when you want to find out who cared about the sport as much as you did in the time when Messi and Ronaldo were at their apex.
Make that move to the Old Lady and the best case-scenario becomes Hernan Crespo at Inter, a standout player who’d decide matches for a couple of seasons before being painted over by a more significant figure in the club’s fresco soon thereafter. Worst case, he’s Iaquinta or Pizarro, his former compatriots who faded into irrelevance and rotted on the bench respectively after the moves to the big time; had it happened to him, Di Natale’s sole escape would have been to an outpost no more glamorous than the one he’d forsaken, only without the added dynamic of his role as the center of Udine’s universe that made him special in the first place.
By staying at Udinese, he guaranteed his immortality in the one place he ever had a shot at it. Di Natale isn’t emblematic of the club’s success so much as he is symbiotic with it, the lifeblood of its triumphs; remove him from its history books and you’re left to parcel through an Intertoto Cup win, a couple of youth team awards, and a Coppa Italia runner-up finish as the contenders for its greatest conquest. It might not be ten years before his name is forgotten in most corners of the world but in a town where the stadium can house nearly half the population, his legacy is built to endure.
With the final hours of the season having ticked away, rumors are percolating that this campaign could be Toto’s last. The annual gauntlet with the Wave has gone in his favor; with the win against Catania last Sunday, Udinese finished third in the table and secured its place in the Champions League for the second consecutive season. If this truly is the end, there are much worse ways to go out.
Whenever it does happen, though, there will be a going away party and people will be tabbed to speak at it. They’ll tell funny stories; they’ll congratulate him on his accomplishments; they’ll wish him well in his future endeavors. The town near the Slovenian border will flood its streets for to celebrate the man who never left them, even though they’ll feel a little sad, a little hurt, and a little abandoned that his time there has come to an end.
But more than any of those things, they’ll be grateful for the man whose last name means Christmas, and the many gifts he gave them — including the ones he gave himself, too.