From Gigi to Gigio Italy’s future in safe hands
On February 25, 1999, Buffon and his Parma teammates were undergoing their final preparations for their Serie A match against Perugia. But what Gigi didn’t know, down south in Castellammare di Stabia, a future goalkeeper was born, and he would soon be dubbed his heir… Aptly named after the Carrara-born goalkeeper, Gianluigi Donnarumma would grab the attention of Italian and European football some 16 years and 242 days later.
It was a chilly autumn evening when Milan lined up to face Sassuolo, a team that had previously caused the San Siro outfit endless hassles since their induction into the top-flight back in 2014. The Rossoneri came into the game on the back of a three-match winless run, and in desperate need of some form of rejuvenation. Milan’s Coach at the time, Sinisa Mihajlovic, knew what it was, and he took a massive gamble in dropping Diego Lopez, the man who had previously knocked Iker Casillas off his perch at Real Madrid, in order to hand the relatively unknown Donnarumma his Serie A debut.
It was a decision that left many, including outgoing Milan President Silvio Berlusconi, questioning the Serbian tactician’s sanity, but doubts soon faded into an abyss much like the sweeping fog at the Mapei Stadium.
“During the week before his Serie A debut, Berlusconi came to me twice to convince me to play Diego Lopez,” Mihajlovic later disclosed to La Gazzetta dello Sport. “I told him there were two possibilities: send me away and play Diego Lopez or trust me and put Donnarumma in goal. He trusted me. Fortunately.”
For Milanisti, the three points on the night weren’t remotely as significant as the impression left on them by Donnarumma. Milan’s saviour had just been ordained, and there was no turning back.
“When we saw Gianluigi, it was like love at first sight,” reveals Filippo Galli, Milan’s head of youth, to Soccer 360. “Gigio was physically very strong. Since the day we saw him in the south of Italy in Campagna, where he was playing at the time, he was very skilful. We were lucky to beat the competition from the other clubs, because his brother Antonio was with us a few years before. His parents knew exactly what the environment was like at Milan and the academy, and so, Gianluigi moved to Milan when he was 14 years old.”
Few knew how mighty an impact the high school student would have at one of the world’s most successful clubs, and he seems to be taking it all in his own stride.
His staggering height of 6ft5 (1.96m) enables Donnarumma to stand head and shoulders above most of his Diavoli teammates and the opposition, despite being the youngest player on the field. His enormous frame provides him with a plethora of advantages to work with when defending his goal, and he is often eager to exploit them to the best of his abilities, even if it means pushing the boundaries.
At first sight, his boyish looks are often deceived as inexperience; however, he has proven himself able to command goal in such a secure manner that would leave most stoppers his age envious. With his great sense of positional play inside the box, coupled with his agility and impeccable reflexes, it is only natural he is now being compared to the great Buffon, but it shouldn’t stop there.
Composed and intelligent, Donnarumma can be portrayed as someone who boasts many similarities to Italy’s highest capped player, but whose technique often resembles that of Manuel Neuer… The soon-to-turn 18-year-old draws many parallels to the German in the sense that he likes to play and control the ball on the ground, and, on the odd occasion, he can be found cleverly pushing himself out along the border of his final third. It’s a trait not for the fainthearted.
“What caught our attention when he moved to Milan, was that Gianluigi was very good at saving and staying in the box, but he was also very good at playing the ball with his feet. This is one of the skills that we stress more with our goalkeepers in the youth,” adds Galli
“Another skill that is noticeable in Gianluigi is that, even if he makes a mistake, a second later he is ready to play with the same sense of security. He is really good at overcoming mistakes. Most of the young goalkeepers, when they make a mistake, they are scared to make another. This is one of his best skills.”
From Dino Zoff to Walter Zenga, and from Gianluca Pagliuca to Gianluigi Buffon, Italian football has never been short of top-notch talents. But one of the longest quests of all has been the search to find an heir to the current Italian stalwart.
Federico Marchetti was expected to takeover the reins, but with Buffon proving to age gracefully like a bottle of Barolo wine, the Lazio ‘keeper was always destined to play second fiddle. Genoa’s Mattia Perin, 24, has also been earmarked to lead the national team from the back, while Simone Scuffet, 20, of Udinese is one to also keep an eye on. Regardless of their talents, many believe that the only player set to emulate the former Parma man in the national team colours can be found donning the red and black kit.
“Will he be the next Buffon? Of course, we hope! He has to keep working hard and maintain these kinds of performances on the pitch. He has already been selected for the Italian national team, and it is my hope; as the director of the youth department and a supporter of Milan since I was five years old.
“At this point in time, I think he is the second best goalkeeper in Italy after Gianluigi Buffon,” concludes three times Champions League winner Galli.
It is an unlikely coincidence that Milan’s resurgence has coincided with the rise of Italy’s youngest ever goalkeeper to play for the national team, and while he still has a lot to learn, ‘Gigioplannino’ is intended for great things. But just like Clark Kent, Superman only ever relinquishes his duties when he is ready to abdicate and Buffon isn’t retiring just yet. Italy is likely to see the Tuscan ‘keeper continue on until the 2018 World Cup, providing enough time for the veteran to pass on his expertise and knowledge to the teen, who is 21 years his junior. From Gigi to Gigio, gli Azzurri looks to have finally found the heir to Buffon…