On Saturday, Milan clash with the Old Lady in Turin. This fixture will surely dominate Italy’s weekend full of Serie A action, potentially from inside goal as two keepers with identical first names are expected to start for their historic clubs.
37-year old and longtime Italian national team starter Gianluigi Buffon will play opposite 16-year old Italy U-21 keeper Gianluigi Donnarumma. Yes, the Bianconeri keeper is nearly twice the age of Milan’s superb shotstopper, but this article isn’t to compare maturity nor how it could potentially impact the outcome of this Serie A battle. Rather, this piece is to shed light on the tale of two eras of goalkeeping, born and bred in the beautiful country of Italy.
A 17-year old Buffon made his Serie A debut 20 years ago when he started for his parent club, Parma, under Nevio Scala. In a match that would kickstart a career full of trophies, individual awards and various accolades across all competitions, the Juventus keeper earned his first clean sheet in a scoreless draw to? Yes, the mighty AC Milan and coincidentally, the date was November 19th, 1995. The rest is certainly history.
Buffon was a young 21 years of age and winning hardware for the Gialloblu when Donnarumma was born. During the 98-99 season, the longtime Azzurri captain hoisted the UEFA Cup, the Coppa Italia and the Italian SuperCup. Simply put, Buffon has be winning ever since his career began some two decades ago and even before the birth of the current Rossoneri teenager.
Fast forward to October 25th, 2015. A struggling Milan side could not seem to find their form under new manager Siniša Mihajlović and Diego Lopez appeared to be all but a lock as the club’s primary goalkeeper. But unlike his debut campaign last season, Lopez wasn’t too convincing and quickly, the starting goalkeeper position slipped through his fingertips…and it was not handed to veteran Christian Abbiati. In would step a kid. One of the youngest members of the club to make his league debut, behind the legendary defender Paolo Maldini.
In stepped youth prodigy, 16-year old Gianluigi Donnarumma. Standing at an imposing 1.96 meters tall (6’5″), the teenager was given the nod to start against Sassuolo. Prior to kickoff, Milan had failed to keep a clean sheet in 8 Serie A matches and were in need of a spark. Mihajlović did what the majority of managers in his position wouldn’t, but it paid off as Milan went on to win 2-1 over the Neroverdi. It was the first win in Donnarumma’s young career and in the very next match, he would collect his first clean sheet in a 1-0 win against Hellas Verona in front of a San Siro crowd.
Through four starts, the now Italy under-21 keeper has recorded two clean sheets, conceding just two goals in the process. So far, Donnarumma does not appear to be rattled by the media attention that’s been given to him, or the rumored interest from clubs around Europe.
This past summer, Donnarumma expressed how important his current club is to him, while also remaining humble about his present opportunity for his country. He told Vivo Azzuro:
Milan have always been my favorite team. I’m a Milan fan and my dream is to one day become an icon for this team…If I think about it, I was able to reach the Serie A in such a short space of time, and at the same time also play for the national team, I have to pinch myself to check that I am awake!”
With this upcoming fixture, Donnarumma faces his toughest challenge yet and that is going head-to-head with his idol on their home turf at Juventus Stadium. But, to be successful in football (and everything in life), confidence is key, and the teenager does not lack it. He explained to La Gazzetta dello Sport:
I hope to swap shirts with him (Buffon) on Saturday. Playing against Gigi gives me extra motivation. But I mainly want to win the game, maybe without conceding any goals…I don’t feel pressure. Yes, San Siro is impressive, and you can feel it a bit there. There’ll be a great atmosphere at the stadium, but I’m not worried.”
On Saturday, after the opening whistle, all focus will turn to the pitch. Donnarumma and his Milan teammates will do everything in their power to spoil Buffon’s 20th anniversary moment.
The adoration and love will take a backseat for 90 intense minutes. But, fans of both clubs and football around the globe will witness something new. Something fresh with a bit of nostalgia mixed in and that is the dawn of a new era of goalkeeping in Italy. Sure, the 4-time World Cup trophy winners have witnessed quite a few keepers play but nobody will ever compare to the legendary Gianlugi Buffon who has been one of the most consistent performers Italian football has seen in the last 20 years.
When Donnarumma was told that his dreams were coming true at the very young age of 16, he agreed, while also explaining that more feats were to be accomplished:
Sure, I have another dream though, to play for the national team. One day, I hope to be the senior national team goalkeeper.”
While few things are certain in the beautiful game we love called football, one thing we can say is the day will come when the ageless wonder “Gigi” Buffon will hang it up. Give way to a post nobody ever legitimately threatened him for. His boots will be virtually impossible to fill and if nobody ever does, most would understand.
It’s difficult to put into words just how odd it will be to see these two oppose each other on Saturday. Whether or not the older of the two will give way to the younger is not something we should dwell on at this moment. What we should appreciate is the stage that each will step onto. For Donnarumma, he gets to share a pitch with his idol. And for Buffon, a moment to be honored by his loving Juventini at home just days after the anniversary of his very first start in Serie A.
To twenty more years of Gianluigi. For now? Appreciate an era.