Italy’s friendly against France kicked off the Giampiero Ventura era and marked Gianluigi Donnarumma’s debut for gli Azzurri.
When Sinisa Mihajlovic benched Diego Lopez for a 16-year-old teenager last season, it left many Milan fans confused. It all changed, however, once Gianluigi Donnarumma stepped into the net and proved all the doubters wrong. Despite getting his Serie A debut at the ripe age of 16, Donnarumma did not look one bit out of place and played with a level of composure typically associated with veterans. As the weeks went by and with Diego Lopez getting increasingly familiar with the bench, one thing became incredibly obvious: This 16-year-old has all the potential to be a generational goalkeeper comparable to Gianluigi Buffon. Yesterday, Donnarumma’s ascent to the upper echelon of Italian football was completed as he made his senior debut for gli azzurri against France at 17 year’s old, becoming the youngest ever Italian goalkeeper to do so.
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After the game, the young shot-stopper spoke to the media about his feelings and his relationship with Gianluigi Buffon.
“It’s an indescribable feeling, it’s stupendous. Ventura has given me this great opportunity. Buffon? I have a good relationship with him. He’s helping me a lot and giving me a ton of advice. He told me to enjoy myself and stay calm.”
To put things into perspective, Buffon, the man Donnarumma replaced last night, is the most capped player in Italian history with 162 appearances. The legendary Juventus shot-stopper made his debut for Italy on October 29, 1997 at the age of 19 following Gianluca Pagliuca’s injury in the first leg of the 1998 World Cup qualification playoff against Russia. Here’s a funny stat: Donnarumma was born only 16 months after Buffon’s debut with Italy. In his debut, the Juventus shot-stopper would go on to make a number of notable saves helping Italy qualify for the World Cup. Fast forward 19 years and Buffon is still between the sticks for Italy as if nothing has changed. Now, however, Buffon is at the tender age of 38 and is nearing international retirement, a prospect most Italy fans are bracing for fearfully. That being said, Donnarumma’s rise gives the Azzurri faithful some cause for hope as the Milan man looks primed for a long and successful career between the sticks.
In the past decade or so, a number of Italian goalkeepers have come through the ranks claiming to be the ‘next Buffon.” Over time, however, none of them have proven to be an adequate replacement for the veteran custodian, let alone be anywhere near his level. The hype surrounding Donnarumma, by contrast, has been fully justified thus far and is slowly fading into the background as the 17-year-old puts in one top class performance after another. In Italian, we like to use the word ‘predestinato’ (destined for success) to describe these types of players and Donnarumma, like Buffon 19 years ago, appears to be one. Also, it never kills to get the seal of approval from Buffon. In an interview before the game against France, he spoke about the future of Italian football in goal. Buffon, without a single doubt in his voice, said:
“Donnarumma is the chosen one.”
Yesterday, when Donnarumma got subbed on for Buffon at half-time it had an awfully familiar feel to it. It was as if we went back in time 19 years to when Buffon came on for Pagliuca in Russia, albeit in very different circumstances. While it’s still a bit weird seeing a 6’5 17-year-old dominating between the posts for the nazionale , it’s a sight we’re all going to have to get used to because Donnarumma is here to stay. As Buffon approaches retirement after nearly 20 years atop Italian football, the legendary shot-stopper can drive off into the sunset without a worry in the world as Donnarumma has proven to be more than ready to assume the throne.