Why Di Natale must play on

Despite heartbreak at the death of former teammate Morosini, the Italian striker should not retire, writes Jason Dasey.

Antonio Di Natale
The sudden and tragic death of Piermario Morosini from a heart attack shocked both players and supporters, and caused former teammate and friend Di Natale to consider retirement [GETTY]

“I fear death, not football.”

The words came from Italy striker Antonio Di Natale when asked if he was afraid to test himself at a big club after refusing a transfer from Udinese to Juventus in 2010.

This week, Di Natale was reminded of his own mortality when he attended the funeral of former teammate Piermario Morosini, who dropped dead on the field of a suspected heart attack at the age of 25. Morosini was on-loan from Udinese, playing for Livorno, when he collapsed in the Serie B match at Pescara, forcing the rest of the weekend fixtures in Italy to be cancelled.

As much as European football has been shocked by the premature end to a promising career, it has been uplifted in equal measure by the kindness of Di Natale, who pledged to look after Morosini’s severely disabled sister. Financial help will come through the Udinese club, ensuring life-long care for the elder sibling in the absence of her brother and parents, who passed away around a decade ago.

Thirty-four-year-old Di Natale has been so distressed by the death of his friend that he announced that he would see through the final six matches of the season before considering retirement, adding that too much football was being played in Italy.

But surely the most fitting tribute to Morosini would be to extend a career that has seen more than 100 goals since his 30th birthday.

Isn’t it better for Di Natale to celebrate life instead of retreating into his shell with a heart filled with sorrow?

Old friends

Di Natale and Morosini became close when the latter joined Udinese in 2005.

While they had the so-called Bianconeri in common, their careers had followed quite different routes: midfielder Morosini had been a brilliant youth player, representing Italy at all levels from under-17 to under-21 while Di Natale was a late bloomer who did not wear the colours of his country until after his 25th birthday.

During two disappointing stints at Udinese, Morosini made only five first team appearances in five years, and was shipped out on loan to Bologna, Reggina, Padova, Vicenza and, finally, Livorno. In the meantime, Di Natale became a household name after winning the Serie A Golden Boot for two seasons in a row.

Yet the two formed a strong connection, despite Morosini’s many trips away from the Stadio Friuli in an attempt to revive a flagging career. Observers said that while he was a tidy and competent midfielder, he lacked that X-factor to establish himself in Serie A.

Despite his tragic family background (he also lost a brother – to suicide – after the passing of his parents), few people at Udinese knew about Morosini’s tortured road to the club. In fact, it was Di Natale who received emotional support from his younger teammate when the striker’s mother died four years ago.

Former Italy U21 coach Pierluigi Casiraghi remembers Morosini as a smiling and uncomplaining player who refused to let the family tragedies affect his demeanour. No doubt Di Natale was touched by those selfless qualities in a sport that is so often tarnished by the excesses of fame and wealth.

Low profile

Di Natale: Low-key and unassuming, but twice-winner of the Serie A Golden Boot [EPA]

Despite his phenomenal scoring record, the diminutive Di Natale remains an unfashionable striker at an unfashionable club: a quiet family man who does not appear to enjoy the trimmings of fame.

Udinese have never won Serie A nor the Coppa Italia and list the 2000 UEFA Intertoto Cup as their greatest trophy. And yet Di Natale has remained in the city of Udine for roughly half of his professional career after eight seasons at the even less glamorous Empoli.

As a 13-year-old he was discovered playing in the youth leagues in Naples and taken to Tuscany to train with Empoli.

Within a few days, he got so homesick that he ran away, heading south back to his hometown before being lured back.

Since Di Natale has established himself, Napoli have reportedly made unsuccessful approaches to the Neapolitan native. Di Natale admits that while he loves going home to see his family, he would shun the endless scrutiny of playing for the super-club where Diego Maradona once ruled supreme.

Di Natale’s decision to avoid Italy’s bigger teams has undoubtedly impacted on his international career. While he has made 36 appearances since 2002, he has not appeared for Italy since the 2010 World Cup.

Earlier this month, national boss Cesare Prandelli spoke of the possibility of recalling Di Natale for June’s European Championship after his 20 goals in Serie A this season place him equal second on the scoring charts.

Famously, when Italy were knocked out of South Africa 2010 after a 3-2 defeat to Slovakia, Di Natale left Johannesburg’s Ellis Park Stadium with a smile on his face because he had got on the scoresheet in his only start in the tournament.

“He has scored a goal at the World Cup so he can tell his nephews,” wrote Gabriele Romagnoli in La Repubblica.

Football has always been a joy to Di Natale. Which is why the man fondly known as Toto should think twice before hanging up his boots because he is still one of Europe’s most potent forwards.

And no doubt, he will have some more quiet thoughts for his departed pal when Udinese host Inter on April 25, the date for the round of rescheduled games after Morosini’s tragic demise.

Join Jason Dasey and guests each week on http://www.footballfeverpodcast.com/ for lively football discussion with an Asia-Pacific perspective. Twitter: JasonDasey

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Source: Al Jazeera