How a Bright Young Star Turned Dim: the Story of Gianluigi Donnarumma

HIS story started out so brightly. He was one of the few hopes in a dark period for AC Milan. The fans were enamoured with him, and he seemed to be with them. It was a match made in heaven, a young Italian goalkeeper playing for one of the most successful teams in Italy. How did the story of Gianluigi Donnarumma go from smooth sailing to murky waters?

The story of Gianluigi Donnarumma began just like that of many football club legends such as Paolo Maldini or Francesco Totti. Donnarumma was signed by AC Milan’s youth academy in 2013 at the age of 14. He was following in the footsteps of his older brother and now teammate, Antonio Donnarumma, who was already part of the Milan setup. While things never panned out for Antonio, Gigio was destined to be a star. Although Siniša Mihaljović receives the credit for starting Gigio’s senior team career in 2015, it was actually Filippo Inzaghi who called him up for the first time in February 2015. He was only 15 years old at the time. He didn’t feature in that match against Cesena, but he got his first taste of being around the senior squad.

In a period of their history, which they surely would love to forget, October 25th, 2015 marked a day where Rossoneri fans found their optimism again. While there were other young players to step into the senior squad like Mattia De Sciglio and Davide Calabria, Donnarumma didn’t just step into the squad, he took it over. One magnificent performance after another, and Gigio already had the fans singing his name. Milan had finally found their first superstar since Zlatan Ibrahimović. He wasn’t a Ballon d’Or winner or an expensive signing, he was a 16-year-old kid from Napoli – the cornerstone of their franchise, destined to be the future captain of the squad.

He started the 2015-16 season as the third-choice keeper behind Diego Lopez and fan favourite, Christian Abbiati. After he received his opportunity on October 25th of 2015, he never looked back. He was the second youngest goalkeeper to ever debut in the Italian league by 13 days. He got off to a great start, winning his first three matches and drawing to Atalanta B.C. in his fourth, which is when he really cemented his spot as a starter. His performance was the sole reason Milan didn’t lose the match against their northern rivals.

The records kept piling in for Gigio. Not only did he break records in the Italian league, he also became the youngest player to ever appear for Italy’s Under-21 side and then went on to be the youngest goalkeeper to appear in the senior national team. He received his first appearance for Italy in September of 2016, just 17 years old. Not only had he become a cornerstone for Milan, his maturity and talent had made him the heir apparent to Gianluigi Buffon, as well.  Everything seemed to be moving in the right direction for Gigio.

Donnarumma’s career was reaching new heights. Under Vincenzo Montella his play improved even further in the 2016-17 season. He started the season off by saving a penalty and stopping an Andrea Belotti shot in injury time to secure Milan’s 3-2 victory over Torino in the first match of the season. His play saw Milan climb to the top of the table and finish 2016 off with their first trophy in years. The Rossoneri beat Juventus in the Supercoppa Italiana. Gigio of course played a huge role in the match as he saved a Paulo Dybala penalty to help Milan win the cup on a shootout.

That time was arguably the peak of his career with AC Milan thus far. The club then began to falter in the second half of the season and fell to 6th place, qualifying for the Europa League. Gigio continued his strong performances on the pitch even though his team struggled; however, things started to get a little shaky for the player off the field.

How did the perfect story, a true match made in heaven, start to bitter? It wasn’t one occurrence or incident that changed things, it was a combination.

One could say the story was doomed from the start because of Donnarumma’s agent, Mino Raiola. While many people in football don’t care for Raiola, the fact is that he is very protective of his clients, always trying to get them the most possible money, sometimes to a fault. He is not sympathetic to storylines nor the feelings of the fans. He is there to get his players top salaries. Raiola has a bad reputation in Italy to begin with, as he doesn’t believe Italian football has the means to pay and hold onto top players anymore. The golden age in Italy has passed for Mino, and he would rather move his best players to the Premier League where they can receive the best earnings.

To better understand Mino Raiola as an agent, just look at Marek Hamšik of Napoli. It has been reported over and over that Hamšik had to get rid of Raiola as an agent to make his dream of staying at Napoli come true. Raiola wanted Hamšik to cash in, while the player himself did not care about money and wanted to become a club legend and symbol.

There is no appropriate way for a footballer to treat his career. Some want to become club legends while some want to be paid as highly as possible. Either way is ok, and should be accepted. A footballer has a short career in comparison to other trades, and if they want to maximize their earnings over the course of their career they have every right to do so. The issue seems to be that with Raiola as your agent, you only have one choice – go where the money is.

This is where Gigio gets inserted into the story. Milan, under Adriano Galliani, offered Donnarumma a three-year extension during the 2016-17 season. The player seemed to be in love with Milan, so it seemed easy and obvious that he would accept the offer and dispel any rumours about his future. The problem? Raiola. Gigio was offered the extension while Milan was for sale. A group led by Yonghong Li were set to purchase the Milanese giants, and Marco Fassone was set to be the CEO once the closing went through. Raiola had a problem with the ownership group, as he had not heard of them, and wanted to sit down and speak with them once the closing went through and they were in charge. He did not want his client to sign an extension with one ownership group and be held to that contract under different owners. This is just the due diligence of an agent. He knows his client is a young starlet of world football and wants to make sure he is making the best possible decision.

The closing went through, Li became the owner of Milan, and Fassone and Director of Sport, Massimiliano Mirabelli, held a meeting with Raiola to finalize a contract extension. This is where things really soured. The Rossoneri offered a ton of money to Donnarumma, even offering him the captain’s armband at the club. Raiola had significant doubts over the new ownership and their funding, so he refused to have his client sign the contract. It got to the point where Raiola went to a meeting with the Milan directors and told them that his client would not be signing an extension and would likely walk away as a free transfer in June of 2018.

The fans did not take well to this. Donnarumma was their symbol of hope and they placed all their optimism in the youngster. All the comments he made about his love for Milan and all the times he kissed the badge on his jersey were apparently just for show. The club was offering him everything and he would not put pen to paper, so in the fans’ eyes, he deceived them. He had repeated opportunities to squash the rumours that he wasn’t resigning, and defend his love for Milan; however, Gigio remained quiet. In fact, the only time he spoke was to defend Raiola when there were allegations that he fired the agent. The one time a post defending Milan came up on his Instagram page, Donnarumma quickly reported that his social media pages have been hacked and it was not him who wrote the post. This generated even more ire from the fans.

Donnarumma’s parents eventually got involved, going to the club directly and having their son sign a new extension bringing his contract through to the 2021 season, so Milan didn’t risk losing him on a free transfer. Although his future seemed to be put to rest, the relationship between him and the fans was never the same. For those who watch the club closely, you know that in years past, he would run to the Curva Sud and acknowledge the fans after every game. This year, that is not the case, and if he ever does acknowledge the fans, he does it from a distance or with all of his teammates. Such a beautiful, special relationship has now been torn apart.

During this current season, his future has once again come back into question. Rumours spread that Milan never submitted a buyout clause in his contract and that the player and agent were upset about it. According to the reports, he was now determined to annul his contract with Milan and walk away again, claiming that he was forced to sign it under moral abuse. The situation became so serious that Donnarumma played a match in tears at the San Siro as the fans hurled insults at him before the match, claiming he only cared about money and even insulting his brother. After the match, Donnarumma posted on his Instagram account that the reports were unfounded.

Things have since calmed down, but it is obvious that the relationship will never be the same. Why would a player like Donnarumma want to leave AC Milan? Well, it could be for money, but it could also be for the opportunity to win. If he were to leave, it is obvious that the likes of Real Madrid, PSG or the English Premier League clubs would be able to offer him both very high wages and the ability to win important trophies. Maybe he looks at players like his idol Buffon, who never left Juventus, and could retire at the end of this season having never lifted the Champions League trophy. The one thing that is clear is that Gigio has never come out and said that he wants to stay at Milan for a long time. The closest he has gotten is stating that he has a contract and is ok at Milan, hardly a ringing endorsement.

The obvious thing is that the fans want to love him. Even if you scroll through his social media pages, you can see the love that Rossoneri fans have for him. While some people write insulting things, most comments are encouraging to him and begging him to stay. Most fans blame Raiola for corrupting him, but who knows if that is the case. The truth is that Gianluigi Donnarumma was, and could still be, a bright spot for AC Milan. As the team purchased many new players and has been playing much better as of late under Gennaro Gattuso, the future seems brighter. If Donnarumma wants to be the cornerstone of that future, all he has to do is come out and profess his love for the jersey. Maybe being managed by Gattuso will help him decide what he wants as a footballer. Does he want to be a club legend or does he want to chase money and trophies? Many footballers have had to make this decision, and despite the murky waters, Gigio still has the opportunity to determine his future and sail through smooth waters.

By Claudio Perfetto with accompanying artwork from Matthew Shipley

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