Great Expectations; the Curious Case of Gianluigi Donnarumma

The young goalkeeper personifies the twists and turns of life at a top club in Europe

By Nick Boffa

Gianluigi Donnarumma is a young man with an increasingly impressive résumé as the seeming heir apparent (not unchallenged, it must be said) to one of the great footballing legacies of the modern era (Yes, we mean the other Gigi). Yet, the Italian has already experienced more highs and lows in the formative years of his blossoming career at AC Milan than many ever would.

At times a polarising figure among fans, Gianluigi Donnarumma continues to navigate the many pitfalls that can swallow up a young professional plying his or her trade at a top European club. As the incumbent first choice for both club and country, Donnarumma could be forgiven for wondering how many more twists and turns his career will take in. As a lifelong Milan fan, “Gigio” grew up in Castellammare di Stabia, near Naples, an area known for producing Napoli champions including Fabio Quagliarella and Gennaro Iezzo. But the young Gigio was destined to join his older brother Antonio, also a goalkeeper, at Milan and so it was as he joined the giovanissimi (youth teams) in 2013 at the age of 14.

Life with the Rossoneri started off swimmingly for Donnarumma. He was called up to the first team in 2015, three days shy of his sixteenth birthday, as an unused substitute against Cesena but not before requiring a special dispensation of account of his age. His first professional contract with Milan followed shortly after. His progression continued rapidly as he made his league debut later that year, as the second youngest goalkeeper in the history of Italian football, usurping veteran Spaniard Diego Lopez in the process. Success with the national side followed soon after. Donnarumma became the youngest goalkeeper to play for Italy at the age of 17, another step towards emulating his boyhood hero and namesake. His early performances for Milan were so encouraging that fellow custodian Lopez hailed him as “the future of Milan and Italian football”. The 196cm shot-stopper in the #99 jersey was cruising but bumps in the road were on the horizon and, with his choice of representation, few would have been surprised.     

Gianluigi Donnarumma salutes the Milan fans following a game for the club.

Mino Raiola is never more than a provocative comment away from a controversy and he certainly helped to engineer one for his young charge at Milan. In 2017, he claimed that his client, who had recently lifted the 2016 Supercoppa Italiana with Milan, had outgrown his employers and deserved Champions League football. Raiola combined his opinions with a demand for a bumper new contract and Donnarumma was rewarded to the tune of €6million a year with a healthy contract offer for his brother shortly thereafter. At this point, things were tense between the player and the fans, but not unsalvageable. Many at the Rossoneri thought a few decent performances would put things right. They were wrong.

In December 2017, Raiola offered another of his infamous opinions; Donnarumma was suffering, had signed his new deal under “psychological pressure” and was upset by perceived reneging on contractual conditions by the club under coach Gennaro Gattuso. The ultras lashed out at their hero-cum-villain with a banner kindly explaining where Gigio could stick his money and feelings of pressure. For Donnarumma, it seemed an ignominious end to a flourishing career at the club of his dreams. He held on and continued to display a deep resilience that allowed him to re-build his goodwill with Milan and the fans through some strong performances between the sticks. However, things were not tutto bene just yet.

Donnarumma during a training session with the Italian national team.

The 2018-19 season saw the arrival of more illustrious competition for the goalkeeping duties at Milan, again a decorated Spaniard, in the form of Pepe Reina. Gattuso announced his intention to split custodial duties between the two keepers and privately many would have seen this as a serious challenge for Donnarumma. However, Gigio responded with an excellent season and in February 2019, just shy of his 20th birthday, he made his 150th appearance for the Rossoneri.

Milan sat 7th in Serie A before the suspension due to Covid-19 with the youngster between the sticks. Donnarumma has now made over 160 appearances for Milan, and with a healthy relationship with the fans seemingly in recovery, he seems set again for longevity at the San Siro. But as with any young talent, opinions on his career trajectory are never far away. Italian legend Gianluca Pagliuca was effusive in his recommendation that Donnarumma should consider his options with his contract set to expire in 2021, despite his obvious loyalty and connection to Milan. “If a great offer came in, I would think about it, especially if it came from the Premier League”, Pagliuca told TMW Radio. “If I were him, I’d aim for the Premier League.” Donnarumma, for his part, has prudently only addressed the rumours so as to affirm his loyalty to his current employers. “The Rossoneri colours mean a lot to me because I grew up here. I have always been a Milan fan and I can’t help but give my best for this shirt.”

For now, this will be music to the ears of the once enraged ultras and fans.  

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