Antonio Di Natale was already a firm favourite with the Friulani faithful, long before he rejected the chance to join Juventus last summer. Now, though, the Udinese Calcio striker is more popular than ever after scoring his 100th league goal for the Zebrette on Saturday.
Di Natale was named the best Italian player in Serie A by his peers in late January and can now reflect on hitting a century after scoring the last of his side's goals in their 2-0 home victory against UC Sampdoria on Saturday. "It's a great honour for me," he said.
The 33-year-old from Naples, who was appointed club captain in 2007, drew the attention of Serie A's leading lights when he became the league's top scorer with 29 goals for the Bianconeri last season - a return that was no fluke, given that he has already scored 16 times in 23 Italian top-flight outings this time around.
"One hundred goals with Udinese is a lot," joked the striker. "I have to admit I have been waiting for this goal, and I haven't been the only one. All the people here in Udine, the staff, the supporters at the stadium; we were all waiting for the same thing and I am proud because in the end I did it.
"I have been waiting for this emotion. It came tonight and I want to thank the club president and his family, the fans, my wife and my relatives. It was a good victory on a fantastic night. I want to dedicate this goal to my mother, who is no longer with us, but I'm sure she's happy."
It must have been tempting to join one of the more prestigious clubs in world football when the Juventus offer came in, and yet Di Natale clearly feels that he has been rewarded for returning the faith in the club who signed him in 2004. "I made the right choice in the summer because we are achieving great things," he said. "It was a choice of life for me. I feel so good here in Udine, and the president's family have always made me feel like I was one of them. Some things are worth more than money."
Udinese have collected 13 points from their last five Serie A games and registered an unexpected 3-1 victory against defending champions FC Internazionale Milano two weeks ago. Di Natale scored the second goal against the Nerazzurri and now refuses to set limits on what his side, who are nine points behind leaders AC Milan, can achieve.
"We are in a good moment now ; we have many games ahead of us and we hope to do well every week. We have a fantastic squad and we all want to improve; we are playing the best football and we can fly high."
During the 2005/06 season, Di Natale was the only player to score in Serie A, the Coppa Italia, the UEFA Champions League and the UEFA Cup and he has scored ten times in 36 appearances for Italy, but despite his myriad achievements Udinese coach Francesco Guidolin describes him as a firmly grounded player.
"He has achieved many things during his career," said Guidolin. "So, if he says that we are playing the best football in Serie A then he must be right. He is our most important player, I take care of him like a diamond. Di Natale is like a provincial Maradona and he doesn't make this fact weigh upon his team-mates because he's humble, sober and intelligent."
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