The express purpose of the World Cup scouting feature is to shed light on up-and-coming young players to look out for in South Africa, but this week Football Further is focusing on a more established player who tends not to receive the attention his ability richly deserves.
Antonio Di Natale was this week named in Italy’s provisional 30-man World Cup squad and if, as expected, he retains his place when Marcello Lippi whittles his group down to 23, it will be the first time that the 32-year-old Udinese captain has been selected for football’s showpiece event.
A short, wily support striker with marvellous technique and an exquisite touch, Di Natale is right-footed but typically plays from the left and has proven that he is more than just a scorer of great goals this season by racing to the top of the Serie A scoring charts. He has netted 28 times in 32 starts, breaking the club record for goals scored in a single season previously established by Oliver Bierhoff in 1997-98 and on Sunday he reached the 100-goal milestone in Serie A with a brace against Bari. If he repeats the trick in Udinese’s final game at Lazio on Saturday he will become only the second man after Luca Toni in 2006 to reach the 30-goal mark since Inter’s Antonio Valentín Angelillo in 1959.
It is a notable achievement for someone who does not play as an out-and-out striker and it is rendered all the more remarkable by the fact that Udinese have spent the majority of the season scrapping for points in the bottom half of the table.
The Naples-born frontman has been at the Stadio Friuli since 2004, having spent the first eight years of his career with Empoli. He received his first international call-up from Giovanni Trapattoni in 2002 but has had a fitful career with the Azzurri. His outstanding form this season has given Lippi little choice but to call him up though and his selection goes some way towards explaining why the Italy coach felt confident enough to omit both Francesco Totti and the mercurial Antonio Cassano from the defending champions’ squad.
“He is simply extraordinary, and I would not be scared to compare him to Maradona and Zico,” says Italy team manager Gigi Riva, himself a prolific striker during his playing days with Cagliari and Italy.
“He is the best of the best and knows how to do everything. He deserves the golden boot for what he is doing.”