It’s the 25th of October 2015 – gameweek 9 of Serie A – and overachieving Sassuolo are visiting San Siro. AC Milan come into the fixture with 14 goals conceded in the first 8 games of the season, two defeats and one draw in their last three, including a 4-0 home thrashing by Napoli.
Hours before kick-off, the coach pins the team sheet to the board: the name at the top of the list, to everyone’s disbelief, is that of 16 year old Gianluigi Donnarumma.
The youngster from Castellammare di Stabia has burst onto the Italian football scene, becoming the youngest goalkeeper to ever start a game in Serie A, and has already silenced many sceptics by conceding only two goals and keeping two clean sheets in his first four appearances. But there’s something else that suggests the boy might be destined for glory: everything about him and his professional debut is riddled with similarities that link him to some of the very best names in the business.
The last time Milan coach Siniša Mihajlović put his money on a 16 year old youth team player, for example. It was March 1993, the Serb was playing at Roma under compatriot manager Vujadin Boškov. The Giallorossi were 2-0 up with five minutes left to play against soon to be relegated Brescia. As legend has it, Mihajlović approached Boškov on the sideline and persuaded him to bring on the kid from the youth team who’d been bossing it in training that week… The kid’s name was Francesco Totti.
23 years on, Mihajlović puts his money on 16 year old Donnarumma ahead of Diego López and Christian Abbiati; the former is the keeper responsible for forcing the legendary Iker Casillas to the bench in Mourinho’s Real Madrid just two years before, the latter is a Milan legend who made his debut with the side in 1999, the same year Donnarumma was born.
Finally, let’s turn our attention the previous record holder and arguably best Italian goalkeeper of all time, Gianluigi Buffon. His Serie A debut came against Milan at the age of 17, on the 19th of November 1995, just over 20 years ago. He kept a clean sheet on that occasion and conceded three goals in the next three games… a fairly similar record to the new kid in town. The two keepers also share the same first name, and tomorrow night they will be stood on opposite sides of the same ground when Milan face the reigning champions at the Juventus Stadium.
Donnarumma’s career has kicked off in the best of ways, and the stage is now set for what could be a truly memorable encounter. One question is on everyone’s lips: will the young boy keep the Old Lady at bay?