The Dawn and Dusk of the Gianluigi Donnarumma Age at Milan

Let us be clear: Only a few, diehard football romantics could believe that Gianluigi Donnarumma was destined to spend his whole career at Milan.

Too big the international appeal of a player who is potentially destined to be top of the world in his role. Too influential his agent Mino Raiola. Too weak the power of a once-glorious club that has only just come back to the Champions League after a seven-year drought.

The parting of the ways came on Monday, though Milan’s qualification to the elite continental competition seemed to have made the hypothesis more remote. But things suddenly plummeted on Monday night as the Rossoneri acted swiftly to secure the services of Lille goalkeeper Mike Maignan to replace him. At that point, it was just a matter of time before the separation between Donnarumma and the club of his life would be made official.

It happens. It’s football. Modern football. Still, what Milan hardcore supporters were never able to put up with – even more than the prospect of losing Donnarumma as a free agent – is how their beloved, the child prodigy raised and cuddled by their own youth academy, turned from being a potential new Paolo Maldini or Franco Baresi into a “traitor” and a “mercenary.”

Gigio Donnarumma’s parable at Milan looks like one of those love stories where declarations and words are shared too lightly. “I love you,” “You are the love of my live,” but well, after all, you are not. Yes, I did say that once but, you know, things change.

Gianluigi Donnarumma was not even 17 years old when he made his Serie A debut for Milan. He could become a potential club “bandiera”, but..

When he made a triumphant entrance to the Serie A scene, his sudden breakthrough was a ray of hope in dark times for the Rossoneri – perhaps the darkest age they lived since more than 35 years, with the revolving doors at Milanello swallowing and then throwing up one coach after another, multiple domestic disappointments, and no trophy glory in sight.

The history of the Donnarummas at Milan had started with his older brother Antonio, who joined the youth academy as a goalkeeper in 2005. He was considered a top talent, but things wouldn’t quite go as planned for him.

Antonio had a younger brother, however, who would soon follow his path. But things were different this time. Anyone could notice that Gianluigi Donnarumma was a phenomenon for real. One of the first to do so was super-agent Mino Raiola, who was fast to welcome him to his pool when the youngster signed his first deal as a professional.

In the summer of 2015, Donnarumma Junior evidenced himself for saving a penalty to Real Madrid’s Toni Kroos in a friendly game. People started to notice him. For the upcoming season, he was aggregated to the senior team as the third goalkeeper.

On October 25, 2015, however, Milan coach Sinisa Mihajlovic shocked the world with a risky move: He threw him in the Serie A mix for a game against Sassuolo, preferring him to the much more experienced Diego Lopez and Christian Abbiati. He was just 16 years and 8 months old.

His debut was not flawless as he conceded a goal to the near post. But the guy showed some personality and Mihajlovic insisted on lining him up in place of Diego Lopez for the rest of the campaign. He was right. Donnarumma’s rise was meteoric. In January 2016, he became the youngest debutant in a Derby di Milano and helped the Rossoneri pull off a refreshing 3-0 win.

Donnarumma was confirmed as the starting goalkeeper the following season. He won his first trophy in Rossonero, saving a penalty from Paulo Dybala in the Supercup against Juventus. The same season, on October 16, 2016, he pulled off a super-save, perhaps his most iconic as a Rossonero, a magnificent last-gasp fly to remove the ball from the top-left corner of the goal, just before the referee would blow for full time and certify Milan’s 1-0 win over Massimiliano Allegri’s invincible armada.

In the reverse fixture, the Bianconeri received a controversial penalty on 97 minutes thanks to which they won 2-1. Gigio was inconsolable. Almost in tears, he shouted “why always to them???” and kissed his beloved Milan badge in consolation, just as to say “we lost, but I still have THIS.”

That was what the Milan fans needed to see. They were madly in love with him. He was the first player for whom they created a personalized chant after a long time.

Likely the highest point in Gianluigi Donnarumma’s career at Milan: An incredible save from a Sami Kedhira shot to preserve the Rossoneri’s win over Juventus

But the honeymoon would not last long. As his first contract approached its end and with no clear talks for an extension in sight, clouds started to gather in the summer of 2017. Then, the shocking announcement: Gianluigi Donnarumma was not going to renew his contract with Milan.

Most people said it was due to the influence of his almighty agent Mino Raiola, who reportedly had multiple offers for Milan’s prodigy and didn’t believe in the project of the new Chinese Rossoneri ownership.

We will never know how big the Italo-Dutch agent’s influence really was, but one thing is for sure: Gigio never took a clear stand on the matter and, if that could be understandable when he was just an 18-year-old boy, the trend has been the same in these past few months. Those that preceded the final separation. Which is what the Milan supporters cannot forgive him for.

In their eyes, Milan’s potential stalwart thus turned into Dollarumma. He was contested during a U-21 game, where supporters threw fake dollars at him. He made a mistake in that very match and his overall performance dropped in the following season.

After the initial storm, however, the young Gianluigi remained at Milanello at the end of a dramatic summer that climaxed with a lunch between the then coach Vincenzo Montella and the goalkeeper’s family – Neapolitan to Neapolitans. Montella was reportedly sent on a mission to the get the family’s support to convince Gigio to stay.

In the end, Donnarumma nailed down a new 4-year contract worth 7M euro per season. He also obtained a 1M euro contract for his older brother Antonio, who in the meantime was having a mediocre career between the Serie B and the Greek top-flight. He was aggregated to Milan as the third goalkeeper, something else that the supporters never fully put up with.

Donnarumma stayed at Milan, but things had changed by now. He was no longer the child prodigy, the one raised and nurtured in-house, the potential future bandiera of the club. He was just one of the many players. It took a long time to rebuild the trust from the fan base. The fact that he had an underwhelming season – culminating with a double blunder in the Coppa Italia Final against Juventus – did not help at all.

Many started to wonder whether he was really worth the price that he was being paid. The following season, Milan also showed that they were already considering a future without Donnarumma as they signed a larger-than-life backup as Pepe Reina.

In retrospect, that was a wise move. On the one hand, the charismatic, flamboyant Pepe was the right character to put the necessary pressure on Gigio and help him grow as an athlete and mature as a man. On the other hand, he could be ready to step up in case Donnarumma continued to underperform or set his mind to leave Milan again.

The plan worked, as Gianluigi Donnarumma’s following three seasons were up to the expectations and confirmed him as a top world prospect in the role at just 22. Gigio became the Nazionale’s starting goalkeeper and, with his saves, helped Milan finally regain a spot into the Champions League.

Donnarumma slowly regained his status as a top goalkeeping prospect after a disappointing 2017-18 campaign, but his adventure at Milan was still destined to come to an end…

His last months of permanence in Rossonero, however, were ambiguous. His contract was set to expire again and, as the deadline approached, the goalkeeper’s entourage seemed to be playing the same game as four years ago. Silences, ambiguity, no clear commitments.

Credit must be given to Gigio for keeping his cool on the pitch in the final stages of the season as the buzz around him started to grow again and he was even confronted by a delegation of Milan fans who asked him not to play in the upcoming decisive game against Juventus – one of his potential future destinations.

The story of the renewal talks, as it was reported, went: Milan raised their offer for a new contract to 8M euro per season, Mino Raiola reportedly asked for 10M plus a rumored lavish commission for himself. The Rossoneri didn’t move from their initial offer.

Again, there were no words or clear commitment from Gianluigi himself. Nothing that could make one believe that he was the real decision maker and the master of his own destiny. In the past few days, he was even reported as saying to club director Paolo Maldini – though the quote appears dubious to say the least – that he would simply do “what Mino tells me.”

There are many reasons why the Rossoneri could have not – and maybe should have not – done more than what they did to keep Gianluigi Donnarumma with them. Milan had already secured an option to sign Mike Maignan a few weeks ago. That’s a sign that parting ways with Donnarumma did not quite come out of the blue. Apparently, even the goalkeeper communicated his will to his teammates shortly after the last campionato match.

Most Milan supporters appear to be backing the club’s position. Aside from some mumbling at the prospect of losing him as a free agent, the club’s firm position was appreciated. Paolo Maldini’s official announcement of Donnarumma’s leaving was thankful and respectful. This break-up, the final one, was not stormy as four years ago. Fans did not rip their hair at the idea of losing him. It shows that the love story was over, perhaps since a long time.

All good stories come to an end, and sometimes leaving the past behind is necessary to break free and start a new life. Perhaps this is exactly what Gigio Donnarumma needed as, so far, he had only experienced the protected atmosphere of Milanello. Away from his red-and-black cradle, he will have to show what he has really got. As a player and as a man.