Italy have found a worthy heir to Buffon in Donnarumma

22-year-old Azzurri goalkeeper produced career-best performances to help win the title

Giorgio Chiellini took the cup to bed with him on Sunday night. Well, it would be more accurate to say Monday morning. Italy's captain insisted he was only continuing a tradition established by Fabio Cannavaro after the Azzurri won the World Cup in 2006, but he had been reluctant to let the Henri Delaunay Cup out of his sight after Italy defeated England in the final of Euro 2020.

When the time came to leave Wembley Stadium, Chiellini placed the trophy on a front seat of Italy's team bus and cuddled up beside it. But then Gianluigi Donnarumma came aboard. "Giorgione! [Big Giorgio]" the Italy goalkeeper said. "Will you leave it with me for a couple of minutes?"

How could he say no? It was Donnarumma who had sealed Italy's triumph on Sunday, saving consecutive penalties from Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka in the deciding shootout. Minutes later, he was named as Uefa's player of the tournament.

As questions were being asked in England about the wisdom of allowing a 19-year-old to take a penalty in a final, Italy was marvelling at the 22-year-old who denied him. Donnarumma did not even celebrate at first, walking away with the nonchalant swagger of a man who had been here and done this before.


Perhaps that was because he had. Five nights earlier, in the same goal at Wembley, Donnarumma denied Álvaro Morata to put Italy on course for the final. These were the fourth and fifth penalty shootouts that he had taken part in so far in his senior career, and he has won every single one of them.

Full-length dive

Not that keeping out spot-kicks is the sum of Donnarumma’s contribution. He made a string of spectacular saves throughout Euro 2020, from the double stop against Switzerland’s Steven Zuber in the group stage to a point-blank block from Spain’s Dani Olmo in the semi-final. The former Italy goalkeeper Walter Zenga defined his full-length dive to deny Belgium’s Kevin De Bruyne as “a perfect display of technique”.

At the time, Donnarumma believed it was the most important save of his career. His efforts against Spain and England must at least have equalled it. And we have not yet talked about his distribution. It was Donnarumma who launched the attack that led to Italy’s goal against Spain, getting the ball quickly to Marco Verratti while their opponents were out of position.

Who could ever have imagined that Italy would find a worthy heir to Gianluigi Buffon this quickly? Donnarumma used to keep posters of his predecessor up on the walls of his bedroom as a kid growing up in Pompeii. They even share a first name, though the younger man goes by “Gigio” instead of “Gigi”.

He is under no illusions about matching his idol. Buffon made a record-setting 176 appearances for Italy and won a World Cup. “No, he is the strongest of all, the number one,” said Donnarumma when asked whether there could be any comparison. “He remains the greatest of all.”

Still, 33 caps and a European Championship at 22 are extraordinary enough. So, too, is the ability to hold nerve while going through one of the more complicated moments of your career. Donnarumma is leaving Milan to join Paris Saint-Germain this summer, a move which has made him into a public enemy for many supporters.

“I’ve been very calm,” said Donnarumma on Sunday. “My team-mates have stayed close, and I put all that to one side. My head was purely at the service of the team and the boss. In the end, that approach paid off.”

He cried at full time on Sunday, though, and while many team-mates did the same it was tempting to wonder whether there was an element of his own journey in those tears. Milan were his boyhood club and leaving also means parting ways with his goalkeeping coach, Nélson Dida, the other player whose poster used to occupy those walls beside Buffon’s.

Penalty stopper

How much did Italy benefit from the Brazilian’s work this summer? Dida himself was a great penalty stopper, and no doubt some pearls of wisdom were passed down. But Donnarumma has plenty of impressive mentors in his time, including Buffon himself with the national side. Italy’s backup keeper, Salvatore Sirigu, was the last person speaking into his ear before the shootout against England, a player who himself started for four seasons at PSG.

Then, of course, it helps to play behind a central defensive pairing like Italy’s. “I want to thank [Leonardo] Bonucci and Chiellini,” said Donnarumma when informed of his Uefa award. “It’s thanks to them that I won.”

The Juventus defenders had gone through enough heartache in this competition, starting together when Italy were thrashed 4-0 by Spain in the final of Euro 2012 and again when they were eliminated by Germany on penalties four years later. They have won the league together eight times at Juventus – Bonucci missed out on the 2017-18 title, spending a season at Milan – but neither had been able to validate that domestic success with something bigger.

Perhaps it was they who needed Donnarumma. “Despite falling behind, we were always in charge of the game,” said Chiellini at full-time. “Then, for the penalties, we had Gigione. We went from Gigi to Gigio!”

Donnarumma knows he would have to win an awful lot more for his name to be spoken with the same reverence as Buffon’s. Helping Italy to win their first European Championship in 53 years, though, is a good place to start.

– Guardian