A city of 100,000 inhabitants and lodged between the mountains and the sea, just a few kilometres from the borders with Slovenia and Austria, Udine is much like the football team it is home to. Both share an unstinting commitment to hard work and family values, a combination that has served city and club well over the years.
Though they habitually keep a low profile, I Bianconeri have pushed themselves into the limelight this season, launching a compelling bid for a UEFA Champions League place. Currently fifth in Serie A, three points behind Napoli in third, Udinese owe much of their success to good financial housekeeping – no Serie A club is in better fiscal health – and the development and nurturing of talented young players.
That is not to say they lack experience on the pitch. Seasoned goalscorer and club captain Antonio di Natale is proving inspirational once more, the 33-year-old teaming up to great effect with rising Chilean star Alexis Sanchez, 11 years his junior.
The man responsible for steering the homespun north-easterners to the upper echelons of the table is Francesco Guidolin, who arrived at the start of the current league campaign for a second stint at the club, his first lasting a single season at the end of the nineties.
Faced with a dressing room comprising no fewer than 13 different nationalities, Guidolin has worked hard to get his message across, even using his wife’s cooking skills to get to know his players better.
As well as inviting Sanchez and fellow countryman Mauricio Isla to his house to savour the delights of Signora Guidolin’s cuisine, the Udinese boss has also entertained the Colombian trio of Cristian Zapata, vice-captain Juan Cuadrado and Pablo Armero, and the Ghanaians Kwadwo Asamoah and Emmanuel Agyemang-Badu.
“I treat them a bit like my own children,” he said of his unorthodox bonding methods. “I want them to feel as if they’re at a club where they’re not just passing through.”
A family tradition
Guidolin’s squad is an example of the cosmopolitan team-building that has been the hallmark of the club since it was taken over in 1986 by Giampaolo Pozzo. Though he has now handed over recruiting duties to his son Gino, Pozzo Sr knows a talented footballer when he sees one, having lured the likes of Nestor Sensini, Zico, Vincenzo Iaquinta, David Pizarro and Martin Jorgensen to this unheralded outpost of Italian football.
His biggest masterstroke, however, proved to be the signing of German centre-forward Oliver Bierhoff. After failing to make much of an impact in his home country, Bierhoff arrived at the club in 1995 and went on to hit 17 goals in 31 matches the following season. He then fired Germany to glory at UEFA EURO 1996, scoring a match-winning double in the final against Czech Republic.
Among the young talents charged with maintaining that legacy today are midfield man Isla, Swiss international Gokhan Inler, Moroccan defender Mehdi Benatia, the 22-year-old Swede Joel Ekstrand and midfielder Asamoah. Similarly, the Colombian duo of Zapata and Armero and Slovenian goalkeeper Samir Handanovic also have plenty of international experience under their belts.
Nevertheless, Udinese’s typically international blend did not appear to be working at the start of Guidolin’s second coming, I Bianconeri losing their first four league games. Thankfully, the tandem formed by Di Natale and Sanchez then began to click, with the Chilean becoming an integral part of both the Udinese side and the national team after cutting his teeth in loan spells with Colo Colo and then River Plate.
A winning blend
The scorer of four goals in a spectacular 7-0 win at Palermo ten days ago, Sanchez feels nonetheless that he has plenty of room for improvement.
“I think too much when I’m in front of goal,” he explained. “I’ve got the keeper right in front of me and there I am thinking about whether I’ve committed a foul or if the assistant referee’s raised his flag. I always tend to go over the mistakes I’ve made, and I need to be more instinctive and concentrate on just hitting the back of the net.”
Strike partner Di Natale, who helped himself to a second hat-trick of the season in that Palermo romp, has no such doubts in his mind when it comes to putting the ball away. Serie A’s leading marksman last term with 29 goals, Toto already has 22 to his name this season.
The Naples-born front man, who has gone from strength to strength since joining Udinese in 2004 and recently turned down a move to Juventus, knows the path he and his team-mates need to take.
“We have to put the league table out of our minds,” he said. “It’s important we keep growing little by little, give our all in training and in matches, and put our faith in the coach.”
And if the men in black and white do indeed make a return to the UEFA Champions League, there is little question of the experience changing them or their prudent ways.
“There will be at least one big transfer at the end of the season. That’s our policy,” club president Franco Soldati has announced. A queue of suitors has already started forming for the prolific Sanchez, with bidding expecting to begin at around €35m.
Whatever sum the Chilean fetches if he eventually leaves, there is little doubt it will be wisely reinvested. Having polished many a rough diamond, the watchful Bianconeri can be reliably expected to unearth a good few more in the coming years.