If Juventus are the Zebras, then Udinese are the Zebrette, the Little Zebras, their black-and-white stripes representing the city of Udine since 1896.
Mired in the horse latitudes of lower-table Serie A since the retirement of prolific striker Antonio Di Natale, Udinese can find comfort in the fact that the club is only the second in Italy to own its own stadium. Unveiled in 2016, and given its sponsor’s name of Dacia, the Stadio Friuli is a game-changing asset for a club that has been a Serie A regular since 1995.
The European campaign of 2013-14 began in Trieste, where early games were played while the Stadio Friuli was being restructured. Unveiled for 2015-16, it is the second club-owned stadium in Serie A after Juventus.
Back in 1896, Udinese were a multi-sports association, mainly concentrating on gymnastics. Udinese Calcio played in the Veneto regional league, Serie C and then Serie B. They were based in the Alfredo Foni Park, at the Stadio Moretti, named after the club owner who also ran the local brewery, responsible for what is today Italy’s most sought-after beer.
A breakthrough came with promotion to Serie A in 1950, the Bianconeri claiming a record runners-up spot in Serie A five years later. Thirty years later came another purple patch, when the club regained promotion and improbably hired Brazilian World Cup star Zico.
Udinese continued to bounce between Serie A and B before astute coaches, starting with Alberto Zaccheroni, allowed them to keep pace with the best. Zaccheroni could thank the goals of Oliver Bierhoff for a third-place finish in 1997. Luciano Spalletti enjoyed two spells at the Stadio Friuli, taking Udinese to fourth place and a debut in the Champions League, the goals coming from Vincenzo Iaquinta.
The spearhead role then fell to Antonio Di Natale, the nimble Neapolitan whose scoring rate of a goal every other game extended over 12 seasons.
In 2011 Di Natale became the first back-to-back Serie A top scorer in nearly 20 years. Striking partners – Fabio Quagliarella, Alexis Sánchez – came and went, each time Udinese successfully selling on at a profit.
The key to this policy, of transferring talent while remaining in the top six, was Giampaolo Pozzo. Udinese’s long-term owner began creating a Europe-wide football empire, starting with Granada and moving on to Watford. Players could move reasonably easily between them.
The other factor was coach Francesco Guidolin. In place from 2010, the man behind success at Vicenza, Parma and Palermo managed to keep a multinational squad happy while achieving results every Sunday.
Udinese only lost out on a Champions League spot in 2012 thanks to a missed play-off penalty against Braga, the ironic culprit being Di Natale. In the subsequent Europa League, a Di Natale goal helped Udinese to a 3-2 win at Liverpool – but European progress has since been limited as focus fell on the redevelopment of the Stadio Friuli.
Shelling out some €22 million, the club knocked down the original stadium stand by stand, and officially unveiled the Dacia Arena for the home game with Juventus in January 2016. Di Natale, in his late thirties, was taken off on the hour, and would retire soon afterwards, notching only two league goals that season but 191 in his 385 games for Udinese. That day, the 4-0 defeat pushed the Little Zebras ever closer to the relegation zone.
That calendar year, in order to stay up, Udinese went through four coaches, Guidolin having retired from the game – only to make an unsuccessful comeback at Swansea.
With ex-Milan defender Massimo Oddo as coach, Udinese remain solid if unspectacular in Serie A, the base of Pozzo’s empire intact, the stadium a gleaming contrast to the municipal dinosaur of the Stadio Bentegodi at nearest rivals Verona.
A self-owned stadium on the north-west edge of Udine by the motorway, the Dacia Arena was completely rebuilt over the course of 2014 and 2015. Surrounding commercial and leisure outlets opened up through 2016.
While the Curva Nord and Tribuna Est were ready immediately before the 2015-16 campaign, the Curva Sud unveiled that December. Capacity thus reached 25,000, almost filled for the Italy-Spain international that took place here in March 2016.
The venue was first opened as the Stadio Friuli in 1976, a few months after a terrible earthquake. The club’s former ground, the Stadio Moretti, accommodated the injured, and the new arena became a symbol of communal gathering and fortitude. It received an overhaul soon afterwards, for Italia ’90. Media facilities were upgraded and a video screen installed – though three sides of the stadium remained unroofed.
Little changed in the two decades after Uruguay, Spain and South Korea played here for Italia ’90 – except for the home club’s high-placed league finishes and European campaigns.
The initiative for a new arena was interlinked with Italy’s bid to host Euro 2016. When that fell through, Udinese owner Giampaolo Pozzo went ahead and built the stadium all the same.
With its sleek, diamond-patterned exterior, and multipurpose facilities dotted around it, the Dacia Arena is both an architectural highlight and a community resource. Its focus, though, is football, with the running track removed and the stands now up close to the pitch.
Away fans are allocated sectors Q1/2 and R1/2 in a corner of the Curva Sud nearest the main Tribuna Centrale. Home fans are in the Curva Nord. Seats in the Distinti Centrali are more affordable than those in the Tribuna Centrale (Nord/Sud).
Still in place is the plaque dedicated to the Udine players who fell in World War I – the city was the base for Italian forces – and the indoor sports hall behind the East Stand named after famous local boxer Primo Carnera.
Two buses serve the stadium from Udine station: the No.9 to the north side of the ground; and the more frequent No.2 to piazza Rizzi, which drops you by the Bar allo Stadio at the church square on the east side of the stadium. You’ll see the floodlights behind the Credito Commerciale Friuli Centrale bank by the bus stop.
Both take about 15mins to or from the train station and both skirt the old town centre. A taxi should cost about €15 from the station.
With a capacity of 25,000 and an average gate of 17,000, complete sell-outs are rare at the Dacia Arena.
The main ticket office is by the Udinese Store (Tue-Sat 10.30am-12.30pm, 3pm-7pm, match days) at the stadium. There’s a city-centre Udinese Store/ticket office (Tue-Sat 9.30am-12.30pm, 3.30pm-7.30pm) at via Portanuova 1, between the Castle and the Palazzo Antonini/Banca d’Italia.
Tickets are also available on match days for a €5 levy at the main stadium office.
In all cases, ID is required for purchase.
Standard prices for the Tribuna Centrale and Laterale along the sidelines are €35-€50, €25 for the Distinti and €15 in either end, the Curva Nord and Sud. Visiting supporters should arrange tickets through their own clubs.
At the Udinese Store (Tue-Sat 10.30am-12.30pm, 3pm-7pm, match days) at the Dacia Arena, there are all kinds of goods in black and white, including bandanas, shoulder bags, baseball caps and frilly pennants. Second kits are currently canary yellow. Look out also for the sky-blue T-shirts bearing a Udinese Subbuteo player.
There’s a smaller downtown outlet (Tue-Sat 9.30am-12.30pm, 3.30pm-7.30pm) at via Portanuova 1.
Outlets surround piazza Rizzi behind the Carnera sports hall on the east side of the stadium. Best is Bar allo Stadio (via delle Scuole 6), an unmissable meeting place for the Rizzi branch of the Udinese fan club, decorated with images of Antonio Di Natale, signed shirts and hooped evidence of Celtic’s visit.
On the other side of the church, Trattoria Nuovo Fiore is a pleasant osteria with an enclosed terrace. Beer is Ustersbacher. Nearby, down narrow via Milano, at No.7, the Osteria da Dalia 3.0 is a lovely little spot, serving affordable local wines and tasty snacks.
Hospitality at the Club house at the Dacia Arena is high-end.