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Adam DigbyFeatured ColumnistFebruary 25, 2017

While it seems to be a combination of implausible and impossible, this Saturday sees Gianluigi Donnarumma celebrate his 18th birthday. Take a moment to consider that statement. A player who routinely stands between the posts for one of European football’s most recognisable and iconic clubs is only now about to finally and legally become an adult.

He has already become the second-youngest goalkeeper to ever play in Serie A, making his Rossoneri debut at the age of 16 years and 242 days. It was Sinisa Mihajlovic who took the decision to field him against Sassuolo in October 2015, the coach tired of seeing error-filled displays from former Real Madrid man Diego Lopez.

What has happened since then has been the story of a genuine phenomenon. Donnarumma has made 59 competitive appearances for Milan, already recording 18 clean sheets in the league and earning a regular place in the Italy international setup.


Indeed, in August last year—aged 17 years and 189 days—he would become the youngest goalkeeper ever to appear for Italy, continuing the notion that he is the heir apparent to namesake Gigi Buffon when the Juventus skipper eventually calls time on his own illustrious career.

His exploits over the past 18 months have been covered extensively, but what brought Donnarumma to that point and what made him such a stand-out performer at such a young age?

The journey to his current status as arguably Europe’s brightest goalkeeping prospect began with his birthplace of Castellammare di Stabia. A small coastal town just outside Naples, it is a footballing hotbed, home to former Italy international striker Fabio Quagliarella but also rapidly gaining a reputation for producing talent that thrives at the opposite end of the field.

Bologna goalkeeper Antonio Mirante, the recently retired Gennaro Iezzo and Donnarumma’s own brother Antonio—who also spent time with Milan—have all pulled their gloves on in the Italian top flight.

However, it was another member of his family who first helped out the young Gianluigi and set him on the way to stardom, as he explained in an interview with the official website of the Italian FA.

“My uncle took me onto the Castellammare pitches, holding my hand, and gave me the passion for this sport,” he said. “I was only four but he could see my talent already. I started playing football in the team’s academy as a goalkeeper and I never left this position.”


From there he would rapidly progress, literally standing head and shoulders above his opponents. As an 11-year-old competing in those local leagues, he was often a foot taller than any other player, with his mother Marinella routinely required to produce her son’s identity card to prove he wasn’t too old for the category in which he was competing.

It was also during this time that he met Ernesto Ferrara, a coach whose reputation for developing young talent is renowned across the peninsula, and his latest pupil would attract nationwide attention.

“Thanks to him, I improved a lot,” Donnarumma told the Vivo Azzurro website, “not just my skills as a goalkeeper though and from that, some Serie A teams started to look at me two years ago.”

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