Taking such a strong team to the Under-21 European Championships was meant to be a key moment in the development of Italy’s next generation of talent. Players such as Bernardeschi and Chiesa would gain experience in a tournament environment, easing them into contention for next year’s World Cup. Among the exciting array of talent, however, there was one real jewel in the crown.
Gianluigi Donnarumma's situation, we have to travel back in time. In 2016, Donnarumma was a precocious (and gigantic) 16-year-old. But rather than doing what most 16-year-olds do (the majority of which is unpublishable), this particular teenager was banging on the door of the first team at one of the world’s most famous football teams. Before he could legally drink or drive or vote, Donnarumma was allowed to tend goal for Milan. He was a revelation.
And it’s hard to quantify his quality, really. When discussing teenage footballers, the tendency is to say that they’re very good ‘for their age’. It’s these final three words which alter the meaning of the praise. These three words permit the player to make mistakes, to mess up every now and then. Raw talent which can be nurtured into something special. But Donnarumma was not good "for his age". He was unmistakably one of the best keepers in the league and he could barely grow a beard.
After many months making the Milan net his own, Donnarumma was seriously discussed as the man inevitably in line to replace Gianluigi Buffon for Italy. And no one batted an eyelid. No one doubted the youngster. No one dismissed him. It’s a mark of Donnarumma’s talents that he could quite easily replace the greatest keeper of all time at such a young age and without anything so much as a doubt among the fans.
Gianluigi Donnarumma was the chosen one. The golden boy. The key foundation on which Italy and Milan would build their glorious future. In the past eighteen months, Donnarumma has made the transition from rumour to wonder kid to potentially world class.
There’s no escaping the burden that has placed on the boy’s shoulders. Still a teenager, he has been entrusted with the future of two storied and fiercely supported teams. And he’s barely blinked. Even as Milan’s owners changed and the new project kicked into gear, the one constant - the one unchanging cog - has been the goalkeeper. As Chinese investment poured into the club, spending tens of millions bolstering the spine of the team, any question marks over the goalkeeper never debated his quality. They did, however, concern his contract.
Donnarumma’s contract has become the ghost at the Milanese feast. It’s been lingering at the backs of supporters’ minds for a while, now. Even after the kid was putting in performance after performance, stunning the supporters with his quality, there was a tiny sound in the back of each and every mind. It was a ticking clock. Each tick imperceptibly moving the keeper closer and closer towards a departure. He would sign soon, everyone told themselves, he’s already a club legend. A local boy done good. Where else could he go? He’ll sign. It’s a done deal.
For months, all signs have pointed at a renewal. Donnarumma himself had kissed the club’s badge. He’d been house hunting in the city. He’d reiterated again and again about how much he loved Milan and how he hoped to be a part of a promising project at the club. This was enough to placate supporters, who allowed themselves to forget - for a while - about the looming contract issues.
One man didn’t forget, however: Mino Raiola. The super-agent refused to commit wholeheartedly to the deal during the closing stages of the season. He was talking to the club hierarchy, he admitted, but they were still some way off agreeing an extension. The very fact that they were talking was enough for most people. They assumed the deal would be done, sooner or later.
But Raiola is rarely one to do things simply. There’s a reason his clients love him. The agent acts as a lightning rod, his often-extravagant actions attracting all the wrong sorts of attention. Happy to play the role of the bad guy, the hated man behind the curtain, Raiola is loathed by many clubs’ supporters, especially as players head towards the exit door. Once again, Raiola proved himself to be the controversial centre of attention. Donnarumma, it was announced, would not be signing a new contract.
Once the news hit the wires, everything happened at once. Social media erupted into a blaze of fury. Milan fans were quick to deplore and denigrate the teenager, while fans of other clubs laughed and threw fuel on the fire. Milan’s management moved to discuss the matter, briefing journalists and making announcements.
The keeper might see out his contract on the bench. They might sell him abroad. They might get him to sign a new deal. This was all Raiola’s fault. This was all the player’s fault. There was an absolute maelstrom of news. Conflicting press conferences were held, announcements made by the agents and the management. But, in the rush of information, there only seemed to be one constant: Donnarumma was leaving Milan.
And that’s what brings us right up to the Under-21s’ opening game against Denmark. This was Donnarumma’s national audition, the stage on which he announced his intention to take over the senior role. But any chance of a regular game for the youngster was quickly dashed. In the stands, Milan fans had organised a banner which bore the remarkable pun “DOLLARUMMA”. It was held up before the game as stewards moved to snatch it away.
But the fans were not done. Just as Italy cleared a Danish corner, a fan ran down behind the goal and hurled a stack of fake dollar bills into the net behind the supposedly-traitorous goalkeeper. The pun was embellished, the fans’ views made abundantly clear. As the fake bills fluttered around the net, the keeper helping to clear them from the pitch, social media renewed its clamour. Donnarumma, it seems, will be the most talked about teenager this summer, whatever he does.
And as for the rest of the team? Italy won by two goals to nil. Lorenzo Pellegrini’s overhead kick to open the scoring, in particular, deserves more attention. But it will be impossible to push the keeper’s stories to the side. Perhaps this will provide good training for the Italian youngsters, becoming used to the notion of scandal and fury rippling through a tournament camp. It might help the outfield players perform under less pressure, taking the spotlight away from them. It might even help Donnarumma himself, providing a taste of what is to come should he ever return to San Siro.
For everyone else, it seems as though the anger and the hype will have to subside. Leaving seems unavoidable. Now, it is just a question of managing that exit. The clever money would suggest that a move to Juventus is on the cards. Donnaruma could repeat his Buffon replacement trick in Turin, taking a place in Italy’s best XI both domestically and internationally. But that would leave him in the wilderness for 12 months. Buffon will play for at least one more year, meaning Donnarumma would have to either sit on the bench or go on loan to another side. Either choice could have a negative impact on his development.
Alternatively, he could move abroad. Real Madrid have been mooted as one of Donnarumma’s suitors, as have Paris Saint Germain and Manchester United. This option would certainly be preferable for Milan, though one assumes that they are in any mind to sell him at all. The fee they would receive for a want-away player with a year left on his contract would be minimal. They might rather set an example of the youngster and banish him to the reserves for a year. If this happens, expect Raiola to knock down the door to Casa Milan himself.
Already, there are rumours linking Milan with Genoa’s Perin. Himself a former potential Buffon heir, Perin’s transfer could signal the end to Donnarumma’s time in Milan. But any resolution seems very far away. Right now, there does not seem to be an ideal solution. There is no option which satisfies every party. Right now, the wounds are still too raw. Between the fans, Milan, other clubs, the agent, and the player himself, the bad blood has boiled over. The heat will need to cool off before any decision is made.