DAVID SHONFIELD: AC Milan unearth teenage treasure Gianluigi Donnarumma

Italy has a history of teenage defensive diamonds, and Milan’s goalkeeper, 16-year-old Gianluigi Donnarumma, four months on from his debut, might be the best find yet

Football is like theatre and every so often, maybe once in a decade, a young performer bursts on to the stage and rewrites the script.

Such prodigies are instantly recognised — Pele, Eusebio, Best, Messi — and the teenage legends are almost always goalscorers, for obvious reasons.

Preventing goals normally requires a lot more experience and is a lot less glamorous.

There is one country where defending has always been recognised as an art as well as science so it is not just coincidence that the most renowned defensive prodigies have been Italian.

Paolo Maldini was 17 when he was promoted to the first team at Milan, after coming on as a substitute six months earlier. Gianluigi Buffon made his debut in goal for Parma two months short of his 18th birthday and became first-choice the following season.

Both Maldini and Buffon had an immediate impact, but nothing compared to the sensational start of Gianluigi Donnarumma.

Four months after his debut, he is already installed as first-choice goalkeeper at Milan and being hailed as the natural successor to Buffon as Italy’s number one.

In his 17 matches Milan have lost just twice. A previously leaky defence has now kept six clean sheets, including a resounding 3-0 in the derby against Inter. Thirty-three points have taken the team to sixth in the table with a genuine chance of competing for Champions League qualification.

It is perhaps too early for Donnarumma to stake a claim for a place in Italy’s squad for the summer. He is yet to be capped for the under-21 side.

But three days away from turning 17, he is the subject of huge speculation, with rumours of huge offers from foreign clubs, Manchester United among them.

Franco Baresi, a bit of a prodigy himself and now a Milan youth coach, said this week: “Occasionally I ask myself if he really is 16 because he shows an extraordinary character and command in a role that is not easy.”

Another Milan legend, Enrico Albertosi, who was Italy’s goalkeeper in the 1970 World Cup, believes the club have found a player “who can bring them fortune for years to come”.

A star is born, although it might be more appropriate to talk of a treasureunearthed.

Donnarumma was born and grew up literally in the shadow of Vesuvius. The family home in Castellammare di Stabia is less than a mile from the ruins of Pompeii, although the railway line and the motorway make access a little awkward.

You could say Castellammare is Donnarumma-land. The name derives from the Naples dialect word for Sunday, and there are nearly 400 families in the area who can claim to be relatives.

It is also goalkeeper-land. Gennaro Iezzo, the former Napoli keeper, and Antonio Mirante, once at Parma now with Bologna, grew up a few streets away. So young Gianluigi, known to everyone as Gigio, is a local hero and suitable stories have grown with him.

His older brother Antonio is also a goalkeeper, and their uncle is a goalkeeper coach. Originally Antonio was the boy Milan were after and it is said that when the scout arrived he jokingly asked Gigio, who was eight at the time, whether he was a goalie as well. Gigio stood out, even at that age. By the time he was 13 he was already over 6ft, towering above his classmates.

Antonio duly joined Milan, and was on the bench for a few games, but didn’t quite make it and is currently a back-up keeper at Genoa. Meanwhile Gigio kept on growing, watched by scouts for several clubs.

Milan, however, had his loyalty and he was already wearing a Milan shirt to school because of his brother. When the call came in July 2013 there was only one choice.

Accounts of the signing vary according to who you talk to.

One version has it that Milan’s chief youth scout Mauro Bianchesi reported that Donnarumma was “the best I’ve seen in my 25-year career”. Milanboss Andrea Galliani then told him to “go to him and stay there, if it takes two days or six months”.

The other story is that Galliani declined to discuss providing some cash compensation for the family, “as the boy is only 14”. To which the boy’s agent Mino Raiola allegedly replied: “OK, do as you wish, in a few years you’ll be running behind me for his contract.”

True or not, Galliani may now be slightly concerned at Raiola’s claims that “Donnarumma is worth €170m”. He is known for talking big about his clients — he also represents Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Paul Pogba, as well as Mario Balotelli. But in this case there is an element of family involved.

Mino comes from Nocera, down the road from Castellammare, and his cousin Enzo spotted Donnarumma as one to watch.

Currently Donnarumma is on a contract of €160,000 a year. The deal awaiting him is said to be worth €1m net.

Milan are obviously anxious to have something signed and sealed, to tie the player down. However, Italian regulations forbid contracts lasting more than three years for players who are under 18.

Arguably the club’s biggest mistake, which has weakened them for over a decade, is the failure to sign a top-class goalkeeper. Juventus have had Buffon, Milan have had a succession of nearly men, ranging from the accident-prone Dida to Real Madrid cast-off Diego Lopez.

The value of prodigies, like investments, can of course go up and down.

Two years ago, another teenager, Simone Scuffet, made his debut for Udinese. The 17-year-old, like Donnarumma, was hailed as “the next Buffon” and called up to train with the Italy squad.

Then everything went awry. A new manager, a new signing. Scuffet lost his place as first-choice and is now on-loan at Como in Serie B.

Scuffet’s career may yet recover, and Donnarumma looks like a tougher character. But while a young striker can survive missing chances so long as he puts a few away, the spotlight on a young goalkeeper is much less forgiving.

Tonight Milan are in Naples (8pm, BT Sport Europe) for the biggest match of Donnarumma’s career so far, against his local club. It is the first time he has set foot in the stadium and the whole family will be there.

The Donnarumma drama continues to unfold.


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