Gianluigi Donnarumma could complete a journey which will take him from the foot of Mount Vesuvius to one of the temples of football when Paris Saint-Germain walk out at the Santiago Bernabeu on Wednesday to defend their slender lead over Real Madrid.
Already a European champion with Italy, goalkeeper Donnarumma joined PSG in the summer after being named the best player at Euro 2020, and he is helping PSG’s push to finally conquer the Champions League ahead of the second leg of their last-16 clash in the Spanish capital.
It has been a remarkable rise for the 23-year-old carpenter’s son, who is already a veteran between the sticks with over 250 appearances for AC Milan and 40 for Italy after beginning his senior career in 2015, at the tender age of 16.
The youngest goalkeeper in the history of the Italian national team, Donnarumma’s talents are such that he overcame Italy’s traditional reticence to throw young players into the mix.
Donnarumma took his first tentative steps as a shot stopper back in 2003 in his home town of Castellammare di Stabia, which sits on the bay of Naples and lies just south of Vesuvius, an active volcano.
“He started right here on this pitch. He came to watch his big brother (Antonio, currently goalkeeper with Serie C side Padova) train and he also put himself in the goal to show off”, Ciro Amore, the head of football school ASD Napoli, tells AFP.
“He was only four-and-a-half years old and wasn’t allowed to be in a team, but we started bringing him to training. He was never afraid of anyone, he already had an imposing physique and he was quite big. We could see that he had all the characteristics of a great goalkeeper.”
Donnarumma stayed with ASD Napoli for 10 years until he was snapped up by Milan’s youth set up, and when his former coach Ernesto Ferraro died five years later the now Italy goalkeeper paid an emotional tribute to the man who helped him become the successor to World Cup winner and Italian icon Gianluigi Buffon.
“Thank you for being a guide, a father, a friend,” he wrote on Instagram.
Donnarumma’s arrival at Milan came after a flurry of interest in the already huge goalkeeper, a phenomenon who Ferraro had long pegged as a future Azzurri keeper.
“I got calls every week: ‘where is he playing? What time?’,” says Amore, who was approached by both Milan and their local rivals Inter Milan.
“The first club interested was Inter. Their youth team manager came here to the office, to discuss it with his father. We even went to Milan to sign a pre-contract agreement with them,” he says.
In the end the family plumped for Milan as Antonio, who is nine years his brother’s senior, was already playing for the seven-time European champions.
Media in Italy have claimed that the Rossoneri handed over 250,000 euros ($271,000) for the younger Donnarumma’s signature but Amore says that his club only received a fraction of that sum.
“I don’t know where the 200,000 or 300,000 euros they are talking about went! We as a club only got 25,000 euros,” he says.
His move to Paris as a free agent, after refusing to sign a contract extension with Milan, enraged his former fans to the point that they barracked him throughout Italy’s Nations League defeat to Spain at the San Siro in October.
At that point he was behind Keylor Navas in the pecking order at PSG but since then has started to play more regularly and was in goal for last month’s single-goal victory over Madrid.
There is a decent chance he will start in Wednesday’s showdown after being rested for his side’s 1-0 defeat at Nice on Saturday, in what would be the biggest match of his club career.