The waviest iteration of an Italy side in recent memory. Wingers running purposefully wild, like stallions with choreography. A midfield trio who just about make it up to your armpits zipping a million passes and finding space where there is none. A more iconic centre-back pairing you could not name. Yet a goalkeeper walks away as not just their standout, but the player of all players at Euro 2020. And, somehow, it makes perfect sense.
Gianluigi Donnarumma, at 22, will probably have been satisfied enough with a European Championship. It is, after all, his first major trophy in a cupboard that was never going to be bare. The extra trinket of the player of the tournament award another exclamation point of many. Only Peter Schmeichel has previously won this individual award for work between the posts.
The immediacy of his award will lean on the penalty saves. Heck, why shouldn’t it? Full-stretched, perfectly judged dives to his left kept out Jadon Sancho and, then, Bukayo Saka to confirm the victory. He could also claim credit for putting off Marcus Rashford, staying at eye-line long enough for the Manchester United forward to switch corners at the last moment and inadvertently stun his rushed side-foot off the outside of the keeper’s right post.
That last one might be a stretch. But wisdom after the event is Donnarumma’s prerogative. The words written on him, even from clear heads, will bestow extra creative flourishes upon him. That’s just what championship status grants you.
Facts do the job well enough. Italy scored 13 goals this tournament – no one had scored more – and conceded just four. Donnarumma, with three clean sheets, has been an ever-present in that backline, playing 719 minutes, the most of anyone. Nine saves, all in.
That said, even the numbers don’t tell the whole story. There was the save to foil Alvaro Morata in the shootout of Italy’s victory over Spain in the semi-final, along with key interventions of fisted crosses and the general tidiness we take for granted.
Even his demeanour dips under the radar. He carries the tools of all the top grifters: funny without making you laugh, suggestive without making suggestions. Each save is notable but part of the job. He’s not the biggest shouter, though perhaps he’ll get that with age. For all the deserved plaudits Giorgio Chiellni has received, Donnarumma rather than Bonucci has been his straight man: urging him to push up or across. He does this to the rest of his backline of course. But that’s a lot easier when the alpha is hanging on your every word.
There are also the expected extras. He was involved in a stand-off with Jordan Henderson, who took exception to his remonstrations at Raheem Sterling after the England winger had hit the ground in the box. Arguments were said to have continued into the tunnel with Donnarumma ushered away by his own coaching staff. And yet, he emerged unrattled for the second half and the rest that was to follow.
Italy know exactly what they have in Donnarumma. As do Paris Saint-Germain, who will call him their own next season after signing him on a free. Similarly, AC Milan will know what they have lost, beyond a sizeable transfer fee.
Before each match, as the goalkeepers emerge for their warm-ups, the dynamic of the trio is set in stone. Salvatore Sirigu and Alex Meret are the corner men: prepping their prize fighter to the nth degree with whatever he needs to get match ready.
The dynamic is vitally important in tournament football. Ahead of the 2010 World Cup, Fabio Capello experimented by introducing jeopardy with his group. It did not work, with David James, Joe Hart and Rob Green, who ended up starting the first match against USA and making an error for the equaliser, developing almost a paranoia. Working together but never “together”.
There has been no such ambiguity with Italy, in part down to Roberto Mancini’s sympathetic management of his squad. Right down to getting Sirigu a tournament appearance as a late substitute in the last Group A match against Wales. But Donnarumma has always been number one.
Donnarumma saved Saka’s crucial spot kick
It will also probably be that he is number one for a good, long while now, much like Gianluigi Buffon before him. The pair are now equal on international gold even though Buffon’s 2006 World Cup one trumps a European Championship. Nevertheless, Donnarumma has plenty of time to take an outright lead.
Indeed this could be the start of something quite special. The likes of Federico Chiesa, Nicolo Barella, Manuel Locatelli are Domenico Berardi are young enough and, now, experienced in victory enough to instigate a golden period for the Azzurri. The green amid the glorious blue now don a streak of gold, and with talent bubbling beneath the surface, we could be on the cusp of the longer-term return of an established force driven by youth.
And Donnarumma will undoubtedly be at the forefront of that, leading from behind with the quiet presence of greatness. With this success, he has pencilled in his name among the goalkeeping greats of Buffon, Dino Zoff, Sebastian Rossi and Walter Zenga.
Could he end up being the best of the lot? Again, that is probably cloud-headed recency bias talking. This game, as favourable as it has been to him so far, will yet throw up further challenges. But he has shown enough to ride them and continue thriving. This 22-year old has the world at his feet. Europe is already in his very capable hands
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