Italy’s Serie A is ranked as the fourth best league in Europe, behind only Spain’s La Liga, Germany’s Bundesliga and England’s Premier League. Each of these leagues harbour some of the best footballers on the planet and there are match winners in each and every squad from top to bottom.
Of course, big clubs generate lots of money in ticket sales, sponsorship deals and television broadcasting fees, meaning that they can afford to strengthen their squads with more and more top level athletes each summer. While we all love a big money transfer saga, this increased spending has a negative effect on youth development, with clubs often overlooking promising youngsters in favour of snapping up a big name player who will sell shirts.
However, every so often a youngster will get their chance to prove that they have what it takes to play for a top team. One such player is AC Milan’s Gianluigi Donnarumma, who was the club’s third choice goalkeeper just 12 months ago – a year on and he is now a first-team starter for his club and pushing ageing legend Gianluigi Buffon for a place between the sticks with the Italy national team.
Donnarumma started out playing for youth side Club Napoli on Castellammare di Stabia, Naples, where he grew up, until he was snapped up by AC Milan aged 14 for an approximate fee of €250,000. Considering his standing now, it is difficult to believe that that was just three years ago.
In fact, his first call-up to Milan’s senior side came little more than a year later, when he appeared on the substitutes bench for a Serie A match against Cesena a few days before his 16th birthday. By the next season he was a regular in the first-team dressing room, acting as cover for first choice keeper Diego Lopez and back-up Christian Abbiati.
Despite the club suffering four defeats in their first eight matches of the 2015/16 season, it still came as a surprise when club boss Sinisa Mihajlovic opted to drop Lopez ahead of their next game, opting to play a 16-year-old Donnarumma in his place, despite his lack of experience. The switch seemed ludicrous, yet Donnarumma put in a performance that would see him go on to become one of the most sought after shot-stoppers in the game.
That match saw him become the youngest ever starting goalkeeper in Serie A history and earned him a second opportunity to impress. A 1-0 victory over Chievo was followed by more and more impressive results, and by January Donnarumma was Milan’s first choice keeper. Unsurprisingly, by the end of the season Milan were busy rejecting £30 million+ bids from the likes of Manchester United and Chelsea for a player that, 12 months earlier, had been playing youth football.
Donnarumma has since become the youngest ever goalkeeper to play for the Italy national team, making his debut aged 17, and looks odds-on to become one of the biggest stars in the game.
Donnarumma was lucky to be thrown into the mix at such a young age, given the difficult path that youth players face to break into the senior game. However, there are still plenty of other talented youngsters out there capable of making a similar impact – they just need the top clubs to start providing them more opportunities to shine.