Italy is a proud nation that has graced the world with great food, fast cars and breathtaking art. When you think of Italian sport and their national football team, a strong defence is the attribute that you may associate with them the most. The world has gazed upon names such as Franco Baresi, Paolo Maldini and Fabio Cannavaro in absolute awe, jealous of their endless production line of world class defenders. As if producing talent such as this wasn't enough to ensure clean sheets and provide opposition strikers with sleepless nights, their goalkeepers have been keen to not let themselves be outshone.
Gianluigi Buffon has been a rock for the last 20 years in an Italian goalkeeping shirt. Other top goalkeepers have had to witness the stunted growth of their international caps tally as Buffon continues to perform year after year. Contrary to popular belief and unfortunately for the Italians, Buffon will not be able to play on forever. Although his determination, quality and love of representing his country cannot be denied, at 38 years old his days are certainly numbered. Buffon's qualities will no doubt prove to be a huge loss to Italy and for a while it looked as though there would not be a replacement worthy of the number one jersey, until recently. Salvatore Sirigu's playing time at PSG was limited in 2015/16 after the arrival of Kevin Trapp. Federico Marchetti at 33 years old is also unlikely to be the long term answer. It appeared as though there was a grim future between the sticks for Italy and it was fast approaching. That was until the speedy rise to prominence of a certain AC Milan sensation, Gianluigi Donnarumma. So step aside Buffon, there's a new Gianluigi in town.
Born in February 1999 (how scary is that?!), Donnarumma moved to Milan at the age of 14 despite interest from other big Italian clubs. Having spent some time in the youth team and clearly impressing, then manager, Filippo Inzaghi, named him on the bench in a Serie A match against Cesena, just three days before Donnarumma's 16th birthday. His real breakthrough however, came in the following season when he forced his way into the starting line up and went on to establish himself as the first choice goalkeeper.
Sinisa Mihajlovic was the man at the helm and the one who promoted the rising star to the first team squad permanently. His debut came on the 25th of October 2015 at the San Siro. He was 16 years old and became the youngest ever goalkeeper to start a match in Serie A. Since then, Donnarumma and Milan have never looked back and he has become the first name on the team sheet every single week. Diego Lopez was sent out on loan to Espanyol for the 2016/17 season which has only further proved an indication of how highly Donnarumma is rated at Milan. His international debut soon followed as he replaced Buffon at half time against France in September 2016 and that could be a sign of things to come.
Milan will no doubt be praying that they have found their Buffon. A player from who they can get more than 15 seasons of consistency, leadership and superb performances. Football however is a different world than it was even just 10 years ago. A call will inevitably come from Real Madrid, Barcelona or Manchester City one day and the real test will be whether Milan can persuade Donnarumma that the San Siro is the best place for his career. The greatest players want to win trophies, its totally understandable. If you are the best at what you do then you want to be surrounded by those that match your ability and drive you to improve even more. It is well known that Donnarumma grew up as a Milan fan but is that really enough to keep him there for the next 15 years or so?
The trouble that faces the Italian club is that they are not a title winning side. They aren't even a team competing in any European competition. The closest they now get to playing in Europe is the short hop over to Sicily to play Palermo once a year. The last three seasons they have transformed into a mid table side whose last major trophy was over five years ago. Gone are the days of Kaka, Ronaldinho and Ibrahimovic, these days the fans are watching Bacca, Bonaventura and Montolivo. As the years of not competing in Europe go by, the best players, along with the trophies, begin to disappear. The money coming into the club is lower and so the standard of players arriving declines too.
Milan are a huge club and will no doubt be itching to add to the 18 Serie A titles that they already have. This aim, whilst rightfully ambitious, is also the cause of a Donnarumma based dilemma. Here they have arguably the biggest young talent in world football but are missing ten more players to compliment him. The hope will be that Bacca scores the goals and Donnarumma keeps the clean sheets that guide them to a Champions League finish in Serie A this season. Clearly that would see revenue increase and give them far more sway when trying to buy players during the transfer window. If Milan fail to qualify for the Champions League for another two or three seasons then some serious questions will start to creep in. Do they sell the boy wonder in an attempt to raise funds and improve the whole squad? Or do they spend what money they do have coming in on trying to keep him by paying him the big money and then attempting to cobble a half decent squad around him?
For Italy the future seems set. Buffon will one day say enough is enough and Donnarumma will step up to the plate as another Italian great sure to surpass 100 international caps. He will likely win a World Cup or a European Championship during his career too, which, if he carries on the same trajectory of progression, will be well deserved. For Milan on the other hand, the road ahead still appears treacherous. Donnarumma's agent, Mino Raiola, who also looks after a certain Paul Pogba, knows how to strike a deal as the world saw in the Summer of 2016. If a bid in excess of £50million is tabled for the young goalkeeper then can Milan really say no? Will Raiola be in the player's ear trying to persuade him to venture to pastures new with one eye on his large commission?
For the point of view of a neutral, I really hope that the potential that this boy has is fulfilled in its entirety. It has been a pleasure to watch Buffon over the years and if Donnarumma can produce displays that even come close to his then we have an exciting 20 years or so ahead. Credit has to go to Mihajlovic too who had the guts to make him his number one despite the pressure of managing a club as big as Milan, a trophy starved Milan at that. Donnarumma was good enough at 16 years old and so Mihajlovic played him when it would have been all to easy to stick with Diego Lopez and say he is not quite ready.
The question could be asked as to whether the young keeper is really as good as we think. Could it just be a case of a young man with bags of potential who has no fear, is keen to impress and has had a little faith put in him that is causing him to perform so well? Fans are often a little more patient with youngsters from their own youth system. A mistake is forgiven and referred to as a learning curve and the player, whilst still under pressure to perform, is not carrying around the pitch a big sign saying “I cost you £25million and earn £150k per week”. Somewhere in the mind of a football fan is a yearning and a feeling of hope that a player will come up from the youth team and spend their whole career at that club, leading them to glory in the process. It is incredibly rare and will only become more so, but for the time being, Milan fans have that hope and it is all thanks to Gianluigi Donnarumma, the future of Italian goalkeeping.
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