He may have none of the trappings of a celebrity footballer, but Antonio Di Natale is a forward that any side would relish in their line-up. A tireless worker in training and fiercely professional away from the pitch, he is the kind of player who makes headlines for the right reasons and always puts his team first. Those qualities also come with a passion for his work and his club, and at 35 years of age he is reaping the rewards of an exemplary lifestyle.
The Udinese striker has been on fire in his last four Serie A campaigns, topping the scoring charts twice and finishing second in the other two years. Notching 22 goals last term – after tallies of 29, 28 and 23 strikes in the preceding seasons – he took his total to 102 efforts in four years at an average of 0.70 per game. That represented 40 per cent of Udinese's goals during the same period, and overall he has registered 186 times for I Zebrette in 345 outings.
On the international scene, Di Natale made his debut in 2002 but had to wait until UEFA EURO 2008 to grace his first major tournament, when he missed from the spot as Italy exited to Spain on penalties. Further disappointment awaited at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ as the reigning champions stumbled at the first hurdle, but he put those setbacks behind him to help La Nazionale on their glorious run to the EURO 2012 final, when Spain ultimately prevailed again.
In short, the thoroughbred forward has unlocked a whole new level of excellence since turning 30, using his sturdy frame and clinical instincts to make up for what he lacks in height at 1.70m. FIFA.com met with the goalscoring phenomenon to discuss his experiences in the game and his extraordinary career.
FIFA.com: Antonio, how do you explain your prolific record in recent years, given that you have been averaging more than 20 Serie A goals per season well into your 30s?
Antonio Di Natale: There's no particular secret. For a footballer, and for any athlete in general, lifestyle is fundamental. I always try to prepare myself as best as possible, and on that front I have to thank Professor Paolo Artico, who's been looking after me for several years now. He's always attentive to what I'm doing, makes sure I stick to a balanced diet and he doesn't cut me any slack. Basically, I divide my time between home and football pitches, without getting carried away by flights of fancy.
Do you think that your longevity has been helped by the fact that you made your Serie A debut aged 25?
No, I don't think so. I think it's just a question of having had a serious approach, training well and respecting the lifestyle a high-level athlete needs to have away from the pitch.
You started your career on the wing before taking up a more central position. Do you feel more comfortable as a centre-forward?
It's been five years since I started playing at the front of the attack and closer to goal – possibly because I can't put in the same workload I used to (laughs). Seriously, though, it's obvious that playing as a centre-forward, with the help of the whole team, has allowed me to be more clinical and clear-headed in front of goal. There's no doubt that that's really helped me score so many goals over the past few seasons.
I divide my time between home and football pitches, without getting carried away by flights of fancy.
Of all your strike partners, who have you most enjoyed playing with?
I've been lucky enough to play with several genuine champions. But if I had to mention one name, it would have to be Alexis Sanchez. What we managed to do over two seasons with Udinese was incredible. That said, make a note of the name Luis Muriel (Di Natale's 22-year-old Columbian team-mate). He's got all the qualities needed to become a phenomenon.
Despite all your goals, you have yet to win a trophy. Are you satisfied with the path your career has taken or do you have regrets?
If I look back, I'm happy and satisfied with what I've done. I've finished top scorer in Serie A twice, scored more than 150 goals in the top division, worn the Italy shirt 40 times and even put on the No10 shirt. I've played in two EUROs and a World Cup. I'm happy with my career and have no regrets.
Why did you turn down offers from big clubs in Italy and further afield? Can that be put down to a lack of ambition?
No, absolutely not. I think that what I've done with Udinese will go down in the history of the club. I don't see that as something insignificant. The truth is that I've found my natural home in Friuli and I've never thought about leaving a team, a town and a family – the Pozzos (Gianpaolo Pozzo is Udinese's President) – who have adopted me like a son.
Did you ever dream of playing for your hometown club, Napoli?
I miss Naples, because I'm proud to be a Neapolitan. But Udine is like a second home to me. I feel very good here and I really feel the warmth of the people. When Juventus contacted me, I told the President that I wanted to stay here. That's how we decided that I'd stay here for life. There isn't too much pressure here. You can lose a few games and still be able to work in peace. The results speak for that approach. Everyone does their job well – the players, the coach and the club.
Despite your excellent scoring record at club level, you did not enjoy the same success with La Nazionale, registering 11 goals in 42 appearances.
Honestly, I don't think that's too bad a return (laughs). I'm very proud of what I managed to achieve with La Squadra Azzurra.
The truth is that I've found my natural home in Friuli and I've never thought about leaving a team... who have adopted me like a son.
You were the only player to score past Iker Casillas at UEFA EURO 2012. Why did you retire from international football after that?
I have a very good relationship with Cesare Prandelli. I have a lot of respect for him and I think he's doing a good job. I'll never be able to thank him enough for bringing me along for the adventure, but after the EURO he decided to make a new start based on young players, which makes total sense. If he ever needs me, though, I'm here. I'll never say no to the national team.
Which forward and defender have impressed you most during your career?
There are so many. For the forwards, Francesco Totti, Alessandro Del Piero and Zlatan Ibrahimovic. In terms of defenders, the one who marked me the best was Ivan Cordoba of Inter Milan. He was just as fast as me and I couldn't shake him off.
What is the most important goal you have scored so far?
The one against Spain at EURO 2012 was the most beautiful and the most important. That allowed me to make up for that terrible penalty against the same team four years previously. But, even before the match, I felt I'd score if I got any sort of chance, and I said as much to Gianluigi Buffon. For me, that game (a 1-1 draw in the group stage) was Italy's best match at the EURO.
You will be 36 in October. How much longer do you see yourself playing?
For as long as I enjoy myself and my body keeps me going, and for as long as I can deal with the stress.
Are you planning to stay in football after that?
The pitch is my passion. I'd be delighted to continue as a coach for youth teams. Young players make me feel young and I'd love to give them the benefit of my experience.