Gianluigi Donnarumma’s calm confidence symbolises Italy’s rebirth as football superpower

Azzurri goalkeeper was deciding factor in successive penalty shoot-outs en route to Euro 2020 title

It is in keeping with an event where established attacking superstars like Cristiano Ronaldo and Kylian Mbappe went home quite early that Euro 2020 named a very young goalkeeper as its Player of the Tournament. Gianluigi Donnarumma is on his way to stardom, or at least a very high profile in his sport, but he plays in a position that tends to resist the top individual awards.

Donnarumma deserves the prize. He had the decisive say in taking Italy into the final and then to the gold medal because he stood tall, imposing and calm, in successive penalty shoot-outs.

Spain, beaten in the first of them, and England, defeated 3-2 in the spot-kick roulette on Sunday night at Wembley, are still in the process of re-analysing how they might have designed their shoot-out strategy differently. Donnarumma, meanwhile, can start counting up all the garlands coming to him.

After the final whistle, he was told he had achieved something unprecedented: no team had won more than one shoot-out at a European championship before Donnarumma saved from Bukayo Saka just before 11pm, London time, on Sunday. The save from Saka was his second in sequence, having kept out Jadon Sancho’s spot-kick, England’s fourth.

There is criticism of England manager, Gareth Southgate, for having placed the responsibility of those kicks on players aged 21 - Sancho - and 19 in the case of Saka. But Donnarumma, it might be noted, is only 22. Pressure? Few signs of it. He is vast - 1,98m tall - serene in his goalkeeping and it was hard to doubt Italy head coach Roberto Mancini’s claim that, ahead of the shoot-out in the final, “I felt sure he would save a couple of penalties.”

Donnarumma’s tender age makes him a fine symbol for Italy’s rebirth as an international superpower. He represents the new page that was turned after the Azzurri’s failure to reach the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Gigi Buffon retired from national service - he came back only for a tribute farewell game - after that, and so closed a goalkeeping odyssey that had lasted 20 years. Buffon made his Italy debut in 1997, and his last, 175th appearance for them aged 40.

Donnarumma had big gloves to fill. He will have high expectations to meet after he completes the formalities, this month, of his signing for Paris Saint-Germain from AC Milan, too. But nobody thinks him too wet behind the ears for that.

He was the youngest Italian on the pitch at the end of a taut, enthralling final, and although the contributions of the pair of veteran defenders in the team, captain Giorgio Chiellini and Leo Bonucci - who scored the equaliser in the 1-1 draw that led to penalties - were vital, the new champions of Europe have an unmistakably youthful zest about them.

“Mancini has made it enjoyable to play in this team,” remarked Marco Verratti, the midfielder, emphasising that this Italy, while preserving the traditional Italian virtues of organisation and resilience, are a proactive, flair team.

Younger players like Nicolo Barella, 24, and Federico Chiesa, 23, made decisive contributions through the knockout phase of Euro 2020, and it was proof of the strength in depth Mancini has cultivated that when Barella - whose high standards dipped in the final against England - and Chiesa - who was a menace to England until he withdrew with a knock - were substituted, Italy maintained the superiority in the contest they had wrestled back from England in the last hour of the 120 minutes of open play.

“This is something beautiful, and important,” said Mancini, of Italy’s first major title since the 2006 World Cup, their first European championship since 1968.

He was in command of the best team in the competition, the better side in the final, a team that weathered the imbalance of support in a Wembley stadium that only Italians resident in Britain had been allowed to apply for tickets for - because of Covid-19 restrictions - and who had reached the final having beaten Belgium and Spain.

“It’s a joy, and we are so happy for the Italian people, the Italian public because this has been a trying period for them,” said Mancini of a country that suffered worse than any in Europe during the early months of the pandemic. Celebrations in various Italian cities lasted long into the night after Chiellini, the captain, had lifted the trophy.

Next target: the Uefa Nations League in early October, hosted in Turin and Milan and with Spain, Belgium and France the opposition. And, a mere 13 months later, the 2022 World Cup where Italy, from the towering Donnarumma to the livewire Chiesa to the shrewd Mancini, are now installed among the favourites.

Updated: July 12th 2021, 2:26 PM
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