Footballers are very lucky people indeed. They are rich, wealthy, and talented, and a whole bunch of them are pretty suave! However, this is built on a foundation of hard work. Plenty of footballers can simply walk into roles with clubs due to their background, but as the biography of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, I Am Zlatan, will prove, many footballers have to work extremely hard to succeed. Some are mocked because of their skin colour or background; in the case of Zlatan, football wasn’t always on his mind. It was his getaway, but he was a slum kid and a foreigner in Sweden - whatever he says, football wasn’t the only thing to his life.
He would have been Gianluigi Donnarumma’s age when he was going through the paces at Malmö FF, his hometown club. It wasn’t until he was 20 that he really broke onto the scene with a move to Ajax. Zlatan wasn’t much known until that move to Ajax, and he’ll likely go down as one of the legends of the modern game in a similar style to Baresi, Maldini and Zidane. Compare that to Gianluigi Donnarumma, who has been a known quantity in Italy from the age of 15 - and a wonderkid with the world’s eyes on him from the age of 16. A full four years on Zlatan. Even in the world of football media, the big story of the summer has been the fact that Cristano Ronaldo has thrown his dummy out of his pushchair to engineer a move away from Real Madrid - or so it seems.
A close second to that story would be the future of a certain 18 year-old goalkeeper. When Gianluigi Donnarumma refused to sign a new contract at AC Milan, it didn’t just make headlines - it was a viral news story across the footballing world. Everyone had an angle. Supporters of Juventus, Manchester United and Real Madrid licked their lips at the possibility of bringing the future of goalkeeping to their club. Bloggers covering clubs from Sunderland to Aston Villa to Genoa and beyond scribed thoughts on how this move would create ripples through football that would affect their club. Donnarumma was a pie that everyone with a word count to meet wanted a piece of.
With no news except a ‘no, thanks,’ Gianluigi Donnarumma was cast out by his extended family, the supporters of Milan. Donnarumma had grown up supporting Milan. His brother had been a feature in the Milan youth system. Through a relatively humble upbringing in Castellammare di Stabia in the Bay of Naples, plenty of Milan fans saw an equally humble goalkeeper. Not just that though -they saw a brother, a son: ‘Gigio’ was part of the family. Milanisti take delight in the victories of the club, but they took a certain pride from the performances of Gianluigi. Even with a loss, Milan fans would relish a Donnarumma fingertip save. It was like watching a loved one blossom in the sport they loved. Not many people get to see a family member achieve absolute greatness - but they got to see Donnarumma do it, and it was all the same. At least it felt like it. Gigio’s decision to refuse a new contract was seen as a betrayal. It broke the hearts of Milan fans in a way that anyone outside the club will struggle to understand. Gigio became more of a serpente than parte della famiglia.
Milan have a been a club accustomed to the cutting comments of media commentators for a long time due to their poor form and off-the-pitch incidents. This has led to commentators taking a somewhat ‘bourgeois’ air regarding the Donnarumma saga. Many believe he should take as much money as he can get from anyone, others believe he should leave the mockery of a club as Milan. They might call themselves realists, but Milan fans have been punished enough without the weight of criticism of their actions coming from media figures, often based overseas. It seems strange that media figures will hammer Milan fans - a club with working class origins - over anything else (including the workings of Mino Raiola, Donnarumma’s agent), in some instances, Milan will be all that someone has as their pay-packet shrinks. Milan’s reaction was borne largely of shock - but there were some light-hearted instances, including the unfolding of a ‘Dollarumma’ banner to mock Gigio’s perceived pursuit of cash, along with fake dollar bills being launched onto the pitch. The reactions of Milan fans have been judged incredibly harshly (although with merit in some instances), and this shows a clear lack of grace, and understanding of the passion, romance and cultural capital built up by AC Milan over the years.
Milanisti are clearly upset - but so is Donnarumma. News emerged that it was likely the decision of Mino Raiola to reject Milan’s offer - not the player itself, which is clearly an unethical decision as an agent should act in the best interests of the player and focus on their decision. In fact, Donnarumma has reportedly been contradicted by his agent. New reports state that Gigio has leapt to the defence of his club, chastising his brother-in-law for criticising the clubs and its fans - but interestingly, it is also emerging that Donnarumma wanted nothing more but to sign a new contract with Milan. How can it have happenned, then, that his agent refused a new deal? Maybe that is the question these commentators should be asking, rather than pointing fingers at Milan’s passionate, though admittedly rabid, following.
Sources say that Gianluigi Donnarumma cries when he speaks about the situation. The Italian media have, pardon our French, torn him a new one. Others are congratulating him for his decision - one which he likely didn’t make. When the cameras panned to Gigio’s reaction to the incident in Poland, which saw fake dollars flutter down to his goalline, he tried to portray an image of someone who doesn’t care, but the forced smile told it all and seemed like a thin thread holding everything together.
This story has not been treated with any grace at all by anyone involved, which is made all the more upsetting by Gigio’s age. 18. A man, but only because of days - not of mindset. He’s still the kid that lived the dream, and now he is being painted as a figure of hate - or a figure of opportunity for his maturity in taking his time with the decision. His agent may have pulled the trigger too quickly, but it’s the media and commentators that have fired the bullets. There are all sorts of voices in Gigio’s head right now, but the only one he need listen to is his own voice - that voice of clarity and guidance. The voice that likely is whispering that wants to stay at Milan, but fears for everything else in a situation made worse by almost every single person involved.