The year was 1995. In the world of entertainment Die Hard with a Vengeance was the highest-grossing world-wide film. And the biggest hit single? Coolio’s Gangsta’s Paradise. Meanwhile, in football, guess who won the Premier League that season?
Manchester United? No. Arsenal? No. Blackburn Rovers. Yes, the very same team that now are in the Championship were crowned champions of England, denying the Red Devils the chance to make it three wins on the trot.
It also so happened to be the year that a certain iconic Italian goalkeeper made his professional debut on November 19th. At the age of 17, Gianluigi Buffon, then with Parma, was given his first taste of senior football not against a smaller regional side, but none other than AC Milan. This was the same Rossoneri that boasted Ballon d’Or winners Roberto Baggio and George Weah in their ranks. This was the same Diavolo that would go on to win the league that season, and had won the Champions League only two seasons prior.
In short, it was a baptism by fire, in a match that many more experienced shot-stoppers would have had some trepidation about. And surely, many Parma fans must have been wringing their hands in shock at Nevio Scala’s decision to field an untested youngster. However, his hands were indeed tied – bereft of options due to an injury to Luca Bucci, the bitter departure of second string option, Giovanni Galli, due to a lack of playing time and Alessandro Nista still recovering from his own injury woes.
The outcome of the game was even more shocking than Scala’s decision: 0-0. A 17-year-old lad had managed to keep out the numerous efforts of Baggio, Weah, and Marco Simone to salvage a point. That season, Parma would go on to finish in a respectable sixth, securing European football, with Buffon making a total of ten appearances across all competitions that season.
Fast-forward two decades, a World Cup, six Scudetti, and numerous personal accolades later. Now captain of club and country, Buffon will now take to the pitch this Saturday against the very same side that he debuted against. And if that was not a story-line in itself, on the opposite side of the pitch will be a goalkeeper not even half his age and who has already been making waves and drawing comparisons to his namesake since bursting onto the scene for Milan a month ago.
Although he stands at an imposing 6 feet 5 inches, Gianluigi Donnarumma is just 16 years old. In the United States, that is when one is first eligible to start driver’s education. Despite only becoming known to the larger public perhaps this summer in a friendly against Real Madrid – in which he kept out a spot-kick effort from Toni Kroos but was unable to convert himself in a 10-9 loss – he has been training with the first team since the ripe old age of 15. His first “official” appearance was against Cesena – albeit on the bench – but his performances in this summer’s pre-season, coupled with the poor form of Diego Lopez and Christian Abbiati’s best days being behind him convinced new coach Sinisa Mihajlovic to throw all caution to the wind and deploy him against Sassuolo last month.
At that juncture, Milan were in the bottom half of the table without a win in their last three and had bad experiences of playing against the tricky Neroverdi. In particular, one man – Domenico Berardi – was rapidly becoming the Diavolo’s Kryptonite. His poker sent Massimiliano Allegri packing in January 2014. And it was his hat-trick that effectively sounded the death knells of Pippo Inzaghi’s term on the tactician’s bench. Mihajlovic was then facing a dire situation as he knew that a loss to Eusebio Di Francesco’s men could indeed spell the end of his time at the San Siro, regardless of what Silvio Berlusconi said in public.
Fortunately for the Serbian tactician, and much to the relief of already disheartened Rossoneri fans, his choice against Sassuolo paid off. Donnarumma was in goal when Milan finally recorded their first clean sheet of the season against Chievo, put in a top-notch performance in a win over Lazio, and crucially, came up with save after save to salvage a point against Atalanta.
Milan will now come into this match on a five-match unbeaten streak and Donnarumma has been a key part of their recent revival. His performances, despite his young age have already drawn comparison, of course, to Buffon and whilst they say imitation is the best form of flattery, it will be prudent not to hype him up too soon. Although Buffon is still arguably one of the best goalkeepers in the world, time is not on his side, and there will come the day that fans dread: retirement. As such, the search for the “next Buffon” has been ongoing for the past few years and whilst a few names (think of Udinese’s Simone Scuffet) have been bandied about, they have all crumbled under the immense and unnecessary expectations placed on their young shoulders.
So for now, we all should just enjoy the emergence of “another” Gianluigi who just so happens to be a shot-stopper. Will Donnarumma someday become Italy’s no. 1? Only time will tell, but one thing is certain: we will be in for an interesting match-up indeed as the veteran faces off against the rookie on Saturday evening in Turin.