Gianluigi Buffon, 37, might find a piece of dust in his eye when he lines up against AC Milan this weekend. The goalkeeper, still Italy's No. 1, is used to seeing younger men in the opposing goal, but when the Juventus veteran looks across at the Milan goal, he will see someone younger than most. Younger than anyone else he has ever seen in that position before. Younger even than Buffon was when, at age 17, he became a first-team player at Parma before spending over 20 years at the top level.
One of the stories of the Italian season so far has been the rise of 16-year-old Milan goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma. Last month, at 16 years and eight months, he made his debut after Milan had failed to keep a clean sheet in its first eight matches of the Serie A season (only Paolo Maldini was younger during his Milan debut). He has had two shutouts in his first four games, and coach Sinisa Mihajlovic, a former defender who builds his teams on solidity at the back, has keep his faith with the teenager.
In its last game, Milan drew 0-0 with Atalanta, and Donnarumma kept his side in it, with three exceptional saves that showcased his skills: a header from six yards out that he scrambled to safety, a shot from 12 yards that he kept out with his feet and a close-range shot from an angle to which he reacted quickly and punched away with fists above his head.
“I don’t look at age, I look at whether someone is good or not,” Mihajlovic told the Italian media. “The boy trains well, and right now he gives me more confidence.”
Diego Lopez began the season as Milan's starter and hadn’t played too well. He may have been one of Milan’s best players, and one of the top goalkeepers, last season but the new coach needed to send a message to his other players. Shape up, or ship out.
Mihajlovic was fortunate, then, that Donnarumma was around.
It’s one thing losing your place in the team–and Lopez played 28 times for Milan the previous season and before that was Real Madrid’s first-choice in La Liga–but quite another to a 16-year-old. Mihajlovic made his point.
Milan has won three of the last four, all with Donnarumma in goal (he's 3-0-1 as a starter), and across the whole pitch, performances have picked up.
Donnarumma was 6 when Milan’s academy signed his brother, Antonio (who is now at Genoa). He was playing for a youth club in Naples, and his mother Marinella had to show his birth certificate to prove his age: when he was 11, he towered over his teammates. Today, he is 6'5". He was offered a deal with Inter Milan after a trial at 14–Juventus, Roma, Udinese, Fiorentina were also interested–but turned it down when he heard of Milan’s interest. He always supported Milan, and just before his 16th birthday, he sat on the bench for a league game against Cesena.
“Mamma mia, what an emotion,” Donnarumma was quoted as saying in The Guardian. “Every time I come out of the tunnel and go towards the bench, I relive my childhood dream.”
Mihajlovic gave him some playing time in preseason too: he replaced Lopez late on in a friendly against, of all teams, Real Madrid. When it came to a penalty shootout, Donnarumma kept out an effort from Toni Kroos, but missed his own spot kick. Milan lost 10-9.
“Milan is the team of my heart and my dream is to one day become its "bandiera" (emblem),” Donnarumma told Vivo Azzurro website before the season began. “I can’t quite believe it already; if you consider that within such a short time, I have been on the bench and part of the [Under-17s] national team, you might need to pinch me to wake me up.”
Since his debut, Milan has protected Donnarumma and he has only spoken rarely. Other people have done the talking for him. Former prime ninister Silvio Berlusconi, majority owner of Milan, said: “He can be our goalkeeper for the next 20 years. I envy my successors, who won’t have to invest in a goalkeeper in the coming years.”
Mihajlovic warned anyone against criticizing the youngster: “For all those who judge him, I ask: what were they doing at 16?”
Also significant in his story is the fact that Donnarumma’s agent is Mino Raiola, a notoriously tough negotiator who said in April that Donnarumma would have played for the first team if he was at Ajax or Atletico Madrid. That said, not many Raiola clients tend to become bandieri for their clubs. Usually they are transferred at the top of their value.
Perhaps the most significant analysis came from Italy’s national team goalkeeper coach Vincenzo Di Palma, who spotted Buffon and persuaded coach Nevio Scala to start him at 17.
“I used to pull his leg when I was his coach because Gigi had huge feet and he looked a bit raw... but it was very very difficult to score past him when he was young,” he told Tuttosport. “I have the same feeling with Donnarumma. He is a modern goalkeeper who can cover the whole goal and can reach very difficult shots."
Donnarumma last week made the leap into Italy’s Under-21 squad and this week, he can tick off another ambition. It will be the first time he has met Buffon, his hero, whose career he wants to emulate. Donnarumma has told friends he wants to get Buffon’s jersey after the game (although Mihajlovic would just prefer another clean sheet).
“My dream is to continue the legacy of Buffon for the national team,” he said. “He is the greatest of them all.”
As if the two didn't have a strong enough link entering Saturday's clash already, who was Parma’s opponent when Buffon made his Serie A debut back in 1995? AC Milan.