Shaking hands with the devil: Gianluigi Donnarumma’s contractual conundrum

“Non si accettano ricotti…avanti così AC Milan”

“We don’t accept blackmailing….go on like this,” read Curva Sud’s banner last week outside of Casa Milan, as renewal talks between star ‘keeper Gianluigi Donnarumma, agent Mino Raiola and Milan dominate headlines around Europe.

Since replacing veteran keeper Diego Lopez in net at 16-years-old on 25 October 2015, Donnarumma’s journey to superstardom has been anything but ordinary; rather, extraordinary. Hailed as the “future of Milan and Italian football” by Lopez himself, ‘Gigio’s’ herculean efforts — with over 70 appearances already for the Milanese giant — defy all expectations for a boy his age. But his size, strength and ability play much larger than the age listed on his newly acquired driver’s license.

Standing in at a freakishly imposing 6’ 5”, the precociously talented shot-stopper roams his box confidently and performs as if he had a decade of top-level experience under his belt. To date, the teenager has amassed 23 clean-sheets, all of which can be attributed to his God-given abilities; an awe-inspiring frame, cat-like reflexes and a strong understanding of his positioning.

Declaring Donnarumma as valuable to AC Milan these past two campaigns simply does not do him justice when you consider the often-sporadic defensive unit protecting him. Simply put, since day one, he’s been irreplaceable and one of the best of his kind, not only on the Peninsula but the continent as well.

This past season, Donnarumma rescued a shaky Milan side what seemed like every week. Two particular performances this season saw him to take his claim as an elite keeper, both coming against Juventus. In the Rossoneri’s SuperCoppa Italiana victory in Doha, Donnarumma pulled off a number of miraculous saves whilst during his sides 1-0 league triumph against Juve months earlier, he denied Sami Khedira in the dying minutes with a finger-tip stop.

It’s fair to say manager Vincenzo Montella needed every one of his 147 saves to clinch a UEFA Europa League birth for next season. Not often a club of Milan’s size and stature consider a teen their most priceless component. But, when that is the case, it’s only natural the rest of Europe stops, takes notice and eventually, wish to claim him as their own.

Last summer, former club president Silvio Berlusconi was in the process of finding a buyer for his beloved club, eventually striking an agreement in August to negotiate with the current owners of Rossoneri Sport Investment Lux, headed by Chinese businessman Li Yonghong. Due to concerns over the club’s standing, Milan struggled to lock up their prized possession in Donnarumma, and avoid this very situation. Along with that, his agent Mino Raiola froze negotiations, as he raised doubts over the legitimacy of the investors.

Under contract for one more season until June 2018, the future of Donnarumma will likely be decided this summer. Sporting director Massimiliano Mirabelli, CEO Marco Fassone and the new Chinese regime have already moved quickly this summer, proving their intent to assemble a project ready for top honours once again, identifying Donnarumma as the face and ‘predestinato’ flag-bearer for the next two decades. We await the player’s answer to either renew with the club or decline in favour of pastures anew, but, in the meantime, it’s worth shedding light on the many factors that could impact the 18 year old’s upcoming decision.

Environmental factors always play a large role in determining whether or not it’s worth packing up, leaving behind family and friends in favour of the unknown– and more so as a teenager. Consider the human element for a moment. Adjusting to being the centre of attention in one of the world’s most successful clubs can be more mentally taxing than anything else. It takes a level of comfort to meet such high expectations and perform on the pitch. Donnarumma is closely tied to loved ones who’ve helped him mature and grow within the football realm these past few years.

Hypothetically speaking, suppose Donnarumma wound up moving to England with Manchester United, or joining Spanish giants Real Madrid. No longer would he be within close proximity of those closest to his heart. Along with that, learning a new language and culture may pose as a hurdle purely based on the variance in football cultures in Europe.

Take current Italy and Lazio star bomber Ciro Immobile for example. Off a stellar ‘capocannoniere’ winning campaign in 2013/14 with Torino, the Azzurri forward made a big move to Germany joining Borussia Dortmund, but failed to deliver, scoring just four goals in 15 matches. Perhaps what made settling in so difficult was culture shock and a notable language barrier. Speaking to German magazine Kicker last November, Immobile explained, “German was damn hard to learn. Klopp allowed me to have an interpreter, but Tuchel forbade it. That was complicated because I could hardly understand the coach.”

The 27-year-old expanded even further, hitting back at the media saying “tabloids often exaggerated” that he and his wife Jessica refused to have a German teacher to help settle in, which is another element that has its own position in the case for Donnarumma’s extension.

As we’ve been privy to this entire negotiation, the media can often fabricate stories to turn a fan-base against a player. Certainly, Italian football is no stranger to this sort of behaviour, but there is a known reputation for aggressive – and often egregiously falsified – reporting in foreign media markets. Reporters and ‘giornalisti’ have a job to do – for themselves and their employer – and doctor ways to sell an attractive, clickable headline. Donnarumma would be under the microscope immediately and the language barrier could seemingly make him vulnerable to misinterpretation.

On the topic of familiarity and comfort, do not discredit the significance of Donnarumma’s relationship with goalkeeping coach Alfredo Magni. Since his time in the Milan youth academy until now, Donnarumma has worked with Magni, who oversees not only the first team but all youth levels as well. Magni knows his habits, his personality and what makes him tick; they are on the same wavelength.

Although Donnarumma has evolved quickly in two years, by no means is his craft as pristine and polished as many assume it to be. Footwork and distribution notably highlight his lingering deficiencies. Of course, both can be ironed out in time but, assuming he is paid among the top goalkeepers in Europe, he will not be handled with ‘kid gloves’ should he commit errors as a result of his rawness. And this is particularly true if he is to earn the wages multiple reports indicate he would under his new Milan contract.

Two months ago, La Gazzetta dello Sport released the reported earnings of the top goalkeepers in Europe. Topping the list is Bayern Munich’s Manuel Neuer (€9m), followed by Manchester United’s David De Gea (€6,8m) and Thibaut Courtois of Chelsea (€4,1m). Assuming Donnarumma and his agent Raiola accept the Rossoneri’s latest offer to date, the teenager would be the third-highest earned in Europe, surpassing legendary countryman Gianluigi Buffon, who makes €4 million per campaign at Juventus.

Pressure to perform at a world-class level comes with the territory of a lucrative wage, and this would hold especially true abroad. It’s not often we see a teenage outfield player get paid so richly, let alone a ‘keeper. Due to his immediate uprising in just under two years of professional top flight football, you’d assume the tension would be a bit looser at Milan to meet expectations based on everything mentioned already. But this decision does not only affect his career at the club level.

For months since his introduction to top-tier football, Donnarumma has been widely considered the heir apparent to Gianluigi Buffon’s Azzurri throne, a goal so jealously guarded for two decades. The No.1 position for the Italian National Team has long enjoyed the luxury of world class goalkeeping. Stability, reliability, identity and more importantly longevity. Italy’s most capped player at 169 appearances makes Buffon the sole possessor of 5th in the all-time international competition, this along with a 2006 World Cup trophy on his mantle and a long-list of other honours to fill a book.

Gigi’s final act in Russia next summer at the 2018 FIFA World Cup means that for the first time in ages, the search for a new No.1 is on. These are shoes nearly impossible to fill, yet there is no denying that Donnarumma wants to rightfully claim them as his own. Is he the frontrunner for the role? Sure, but that isn’t to say La Nazionale lack options. Udinese’s Alex Meret, who some consider to be technically superior to Donnarumma, will continue breathing down his neck. Having said that, even if Gigio is cast as the long-time replacement, a name isn’t enough to lock down it completely. An extended body of work spanning more than a few years is needed for us to confidently hand young Donnarumma the precious number one shirt of the Azzurri.

Moving abroad certainly does not eliminate him from the National Team picture, but Italian coaches like Antonio Conte and currently Giampiero Ventura seem to favour candidates plying their trade in Serie A over those outside the country. Donnarumma still has lots to learn about what it means to wear the iconic blue shirt, so a domestic stay could make the transition from Buffon over to himself seamless and much easier on the FIGC and president Carlo Tavecchio when the time comes next year.

We’ve lamented the weighing factors a move abroad could have on Gianluigi Donnarumma’s career. There is optimism amongst tense Milan supporters that, with the club’s shrewd transfer market proceedings thus far here in June, the offer sitting in front of Gigio, and the overall commitment to waking a sleeping giant, a renewal can be reached.

Donnarumma told GQ Italia, “I am calm, all the parties involved know the decision I’ve made. I’m very much tied to these colours. I’m looking for a house in the city to live with my family. Everyone knows that my wish is to stay at Milan.”

But actions speak louder than words. One of AC Milan’s famous nicknames is Il Diavolo (The Devil), but will Gianluigi Donnarumma shake hands with the Devil and commit to AC Milan, or be tempted by the allure of new challenges and fuller pockets abroad? Milanisiti will be hoping loyalty prevails.

Words by Matthew Santangelo: @Matt_Santangelo
Matt is an Italian football writer who co-founded the blog, Milan Brothers. He is TGU’s Social Media Direttore, and his work can also be found at Football Italia and These Football Times.