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Soccer

Unflappable and fearless: Italy’s Gianluigi Donnarumma is a true colossus

With two crucial saves in the decisive penalty shootout v England, Gianluigi Donnarumma was the hero as Italy won Euro 2020. Get to know the man who kept his cool under the most intense pressure.
Written by Brian Homewood
7 min readPublished on
“Fearless”. It is Gianluigi Donnarumma’s favourite word when he talks about his approach to football. From the very first time he stepped onto a football pitch at the age of five, to making his Serie A debut as a 16-year-old, to appearing at Euro 2020 – his first major international tournament – the Italian has always banished the idea of fear.
He is also ambitious. “My goal is to win as many trophies as possible,” he says. “To win with the blue jersey, with the national team. Maybe one day, who knows... It's an amazing dream. Maybe I'll win the Ballon D’or. I'll do whatever I have to do.”
Donnarumma has been around for so long that it is easy to forget he is still only 22.
Discover more about Donnarumma's journey from grassroots football to Italian number in the video at the top of the page.
Harry Maguire of England walks up to take his penalty against Gianluigi Donnarumma of Italy in the UEFA Euro 2020 Championship Final between Italy and England on July 11, 2021 in London, England.
The 1.95m goalkeeper is an imposing figure
It is nearly five years since he replaced his idol Gianluigi Buffon -- 21 years Donnarumma's senior -- at halftime in a friendly against France to make his international debut. He was 17 years 189 days at the time, making him the youngest goalkeeper ever to play for Italy. Just two years later, in 2018, he would establish himself as Italy's first-choice keeper.
Buffon, still going strong, has just signed for Serie B side Parma at the age of 43. "I hope to still be at the pitch at 40, helping my team-mates," said Donnarumma, who names Dida, the former AC Milan and Brazil goalkeeper, as his other idol. “In my bedroom, I had Buffon, Dida, they were always my favourite goalkeepers. I had only football posters, it was a football bedroom… all football,” he said.
'Gigio' first stepped onto a football pitch as a kid when his uncle Enrico Alfano, a football trainer, took him to train at the academy of the ASD Napoli club in his native Castellammare di Stabia, which is only a few kilometres from Pompeii.
The Italian team celebrate their victory in the UEFA Euro 2020 Championship Final between Italy and England at Wembley Stadium on July 11, 2021 in London, England.
Donnarumma celebrates Italy's victory in the final of Euro 2020
"My passion for goalkeeping began there," he said. "My first good memory is the first day I played as a goalkeeper. My uncle would shoot and I would dive at the footballs. I was never afraid. Maybe that's why I chose goalkeeping."
"I was really small, but always passionate. I haven't left the goal since. I was fearless." Not even a dirt pitch could deter him. "The beginning, definitely, was not easy. For a goalkeeper diving on a dirt field was not easy, but I had a passion for it," he said.
He loved playing football so much that he would cry when it rained and he could not play.
Italian goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma poses for a portrait during a shoot in Milan, Italy on April 22, 2021.
Donnarumma made his debut for Italy when he was just 17
“After school, I couldn't wait to go back because playing was everything for me. And when it was raining, and maybe training was cancelled, I would cry -- I still wanted to go and play, and I'd raise hell at home."
After Alfano sadly passed away, talent scout Ernesto Ferraro became Donnarumma's mentor and persuaded him he could make it as a professional. "Mister Ernesto Ferraro had insane belief in me,” said Donnarumma. “He always told me that with passion and hard work I could one day play for the national team and in Serie A. For me, it was just a dream but I saw how convinced he was."
Gianluigi Donnarumma of Italy saves Bukayo Saka's penalty during the penalty shoot out in the Euro 2020 Final at Wembley Stadium on July 11, 2021 in London, England.
Under immense pressure, Donnarumma proves to be fearless
Donnarumma said his father, a carpenter, taught him values such as humility and sacrifice. “He taught me so much and who I am now," he said. He would occasionally help his father but admitted that "I was only thinking about football, never carpentry."
By the age of 10, Donnarumma was already over 1.82m tall and making an impression. In 2013, at the age of 14, he joined AC Milan, but it was not easy.
"The first days, waking up and not being at home, it was really tough. During the day, with your team-mates, you would forget for a while. But the start of the day was rough. I really missed home," he said. "In the morning, I would shed some tears. It wasn't easy to leave the family."
Gianluigi Donnarumma poses for a portrait in Milan, Italy on February 15, 2021.
Donnarumma has always had a passion for goalkeeping
Gaming took his mind off the homesickness, at least some of the time.
"In the evenings, we would get together, three or four of us, and we'd play video games. So we found joy in gaming. Playing against each other was fun. We were fine, there were some broken joysticks. But we had a lot of fun."
Donnarumma played in the age group above him at Milan before being promoted to the first team for the 2015-16 season. Coach Sinisa Mihajlovic did not wait long to give Donnarumma his debut, against Sassuolo on October 25, 2015. Donnarumma was 16 years and 242 days, making him the second-youngest goalkeeper to play in Serie A after Giuseppe Sacchi, also for Milan.
Italian goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma poses for a portrait during a shoot in Milan, Italy on April 22, 2021.
Donnarumma sets very high standards for himself
I keep my cool, this has always been a strength of mine
"(Mihajlovic) asked me if I was afraid to play. He knew I would say no because I couldn't be afraid, even if I'd never played. I could hardly wait. We had a nice talk. He told me he trusted me and he saw that I was the strongest player of them all. That he wanted me to play. I was really happy, I thanked him. I told him he could count on me,” he said.
"(After training), I couldn't wait to take a shower and call my parents. It was one of the most exciting moments. I said, ‘Look, Dad, tomorrow I'm playing, so take the train and come up.’"
Milan won 2-1, although Donnarumma was unhappy that Domenico Berardi scored against him from a free kick which went in off the post. Mihajlovic called to reassure him. “He said ‘Keep on doing what you're doing. I have all my faith in you.' Those words were very important for me.”
Incredibly, Donnarumma has missed only five Serie A games since that day.
Like all professionals, he sets very high standards for himself and has difficulty coming to terms with mistakes. "After messing up, you struggle to process it," he said. "You keep thinking about it. The adrenaline of the game makes it hard to sleep at night. It's even worse if you've made a mistake."
Yet he remains unflappable under pressure. “I keep my cool, this has always been a strength of mine,” he said. “I've played in Serie A for six years. It's normal that I've earned a bit more respect. I make myself heard. And rightfully so, even if I am really young. Now I've got a bit more experience, so they listen to me.”
Gianluigi Donnarumma of Italy celebrates with teammates after saving the England fifth penalty taken by Bukayo Saka in the Euro 2020 Final at Wembley Stadium on July 11, 2021 in London, England.
Donnarumma is mobbed by team-mates after his all-important penalty save
“The goalkeeper must be heard and command the defence for them to feel safe with me, just like I feel safe with them. They are important because of this. I trust them, they trust me and this reciprocity is very important for all of us.”
Focus and learning are also key, he said: “Being focused, that's also one of my main strengths. Keep going. As they say, the next kick is the most important.
"I've also always thought that one never stops learning. Even after five years, 10 years, 20 years, I've never stopped learning. When you go training, it's always a great day to learn. I've always thought this. It's probably my main characteristic."
Is there anything that Gigio is afraid of? Perhaps rather oddly for someone who spends much of his time flying through the air, he does not enjoy being in a plane. "I'm a bit afraid of flying, even if it's getting better."