Let me start by saying that not all teams who wear black and white stripes in Italy suck. No sir, there’s more than the almighty Juventus. The lovely town of Udine for example, in the north-eastern corner of Italy, situated at the foot of the Alps. There lies the home of Udinese Calcio aka the Zebrette. Founded in 1896, Udinese has spent a lifetime traveling between Serie A, B, and C.
Now an integral part of Serie A since 1995, Udinese is no big name in calcio like Juve, Inter, or Milan. They don’t have a history like Fiorentina, Napoli, or Genoa. They are just... Udinese. Comfortably sitting in the grey zone. But they surprised the world in 2004-2005, so let’s go back in time and see which players put Udine on the map.
We’ll meet a lot of familiar faces with a lot of Roman links.
For starters, their goalkeeper back then will surely ring a bell: Morgan De Sanctis. Yes, good old MDS, who played almost 80 games in two seasons at Roma as a geriatric patient, was 36 when he joined in 2013 and was an integral part of the famous Rudi Garcia side that won the opening 10 games of the season.
Back in 2004, Morgan was a fresh-faced 27-year-old and your typical Italian not-quite-Zoff-or-Buffon-but-still-pretty-decent goalkeeper; the ones who usually give Roma headaches. After Udinese, Morgan had a nice career at Napoli before he joined the Giallorossi.
The second keeper and MDS’ deputy? A very young and very raw Samir Handanovic, the current Inter legend. Only 20 at the time, Samir played only three Serie A games with Udinese but we all know how his career turned out.
In defense you had the old and wise Nestor Sensini, nearing his 40s and enjoying his second stint at Udine. Sensini looked twice his age but he was a dependable CB although not a sure starter anymore. Maldini lite, as one could say. But with a far worse haircut.
Another striking name (and appearance) was Marek Jankulovski. I remember I wanted this guy so much to join AS Roma back in 2004. He could play literally anywhere on the left side of the pitch, being quick, energetic, hardworking, and having a majestic cross. Sadly he joined Milan in 2007, winning the CL and Scudetto with the Rossoneri. I’ll never forgive you, Marek!
Of course, how could we forget the captain in the heart of the defence: Valerio Bertotto. He spent 13 years at Udine, playing more than 400 official games. A great leader. Too bad guys like Materazzi, Maldini, Nesta, and Cannavaro were still playing and overshadowed him because otherwise, Valerio would have received a lot more recognition.
Speaking of good defenders, Udinese bragged with another one: Per Kroldrup. Blond, beautiful, and big. Like 1.94 meters big (6ft4). The Danish tower was sold to Everton after Udinese’s magical season but had to undergo surgery before he even played one official minute for the Toffees. Seen as one of the club’s worst transfers, Kroldrup returned to Italy and luckily redeemed himself later on at Fiorentina.
There was also a young Brazilian prodigy in defense who I remember was linked to Roma a couple of times: Felipe. But his career wasn’t all that, playing for seven different teams between 2010 and 2020 including a handful of odd appearances with Inter. Another name you might recognize is the fullback/wingback Mirko Pieri.
Now, on to the midfield. And once again a familiar face: David Pizarro! Il Pek. The Chilean midfield maestro and a personal favorite of Luciano Spalletti. I was heartbroken he joined Inter in 2005 but eventually, Pizarro realized his mistake and found his home in Rome, a reunion with Luciano.
Pizarro spent six seasons in the Capital before joining Man City on loan (sounds weird now, doesn’t it? Man City loaning a Roma player in his 30s). Pizarro was an integral part of the 4-2-3-1 next to DDR and Perrotta, one of the pillars of that brilliant Roma side. He enjoyed a brief resurgence towards the end of his career at Fiorentina before returning to Chile before quitting football in 2018; a career that spanned 20 years.
Aside from the genius Pizarro, there was the powerful workhorse Sulley Muntari (who played for both Milan teams afterward), the elegant Pazienza, all-around Mauri, and club legend Pinzi. My, so many likable players to choose from! Well, maybe except Mauri and his Lazio past.
But up front in the attack, well, that’s where the magic truly happened for me. Udine shined in this department thanks to three guys.
Vincenzo Iaquinta was in red-hot form that season, scoring 13 goals in Serie A while attracting interest from all Italian top clubs including Roma. Udinese managed to keep the tall, quick striker until 2007 when he joined Juventus.
Next to Iaquinta, you had the Di-Di brothers: Di Natale and Di Michele. Two excellent Italian strikers.
Surprisingly this was only Toto Di Natale’s first season at Udine, he was already 27 at the time but he remained with the Zebrette for twelve years, until 2016. He became their captain, two times Capocannoniere in Serie A and the club’s all-time top scorer and the player with the most official appearances.
Not the biggest guy on the pitch but truly a magician. Regarded as one of the finest Italian forwards since 2000, Di Natale had it all: speed, technical ability, lethal in front of goal, versatile, and good with either left or right foot. He was the Francesco Totti of Udine, there are no other words to describe him. I would have given anything to bring him to Roma alongside Totti himself. What a combo that would have been. That Scudetto 2009-2010 would have been in the bag, I’m sure of it.
The other ‘Di’ was David Di Michele. A maybe less spectacular forward than Di Natale but able to play all positions up front, just like Toto. Born not far from Rome, I always thought he would join the Giallorossi sooner or later, as some sort of utility man. A deal in the same mold as Tonetto, Cassetti, Perrotta, Brighi: not a flashy signing at first sight but a man who you can count on and was worth every penny.
I’ll save the best for last: the coach Luciano Spalletti.
The bald and beautiful man who brought Udine Calcio into the top four that season and earned a ticket to the Champions League. The club also reached the semifinal of the Coppa Italia that season, narrowly losing out to Roma in two ties. 2004-2005 was a damn miracle, the kind of result your average Roma fan would be happy about. Udine Calcio fans? They went out of their minds.
After three successful seasons up north (sixth, seventh, fourth), Luciano did the right thing and became head coach of the most delightful club of the world in the summer of 2005: AS Roma. Thank God for that. The rest is history.
Two Coppa Italia, a Supercoppa and probably the finest brand of football Roma fans have ever seen. Spal returned for a shorter second stint in 2016, leading Roma to two consecutive second places in Serie A. One of the greats in Roman history.
But when you think of it, his work at Udine might actually be more impressive as in 2004 he wrote one of the best fairytales of Italian football ever, with a group of strong players who made Serie A history together. The Unforgettable and Untouchable Udinese