From 'Dollarumma' to 'Super Gigio' again

Gianluigi Donnarumma was told to leave AC Milan by fans frustrated by speculation surrounding his future but he has won them over again

At just 18 years of age, Gianluigi Donnarumma had already grown sadly accustomed to dealing with the fury of AC Milan's frustrated fans but, on the evening of December 13, he could take no more.

As he ran towards his goal ahead of a Coppa Italia clash with Verona at San Siro, the goalkeeper looked up towards the Curva Sud and saw a banner that stopped him dead in his tracks.

"Moral violence, 6 million per year and the signing of a parasite brother? Now get out, the patience is finished!"

Milan captain Leonardo Bonucci did his best to comfort his teenage team-mate but Donnarumma was unable to hold back the tears.

He got through the game, keeping a clean sheet in the process, but many wondered afterwards how he could possibly get through the season in a climate of such open hostility.

Donnarumma was a childhood Milan fan, the club's most promising academy product since Paolo Maldini, yet he was being vilified by his own club's supporters.

Coach Gennaro Gattuso was aghast: "I feel terrible about this, as people are painting a kid as if he's a monster and he doesn't deserve it."

Indeed, it wasn't Donnarumma who had accused Milan of bullying him into signing a contract extension through "moral violence" - that was the work of his agent, Mino Raiola, a man who still openly admits that he would like to see his client leave San Siro.

Donnarumma, for his part, has always insisted that he wants to remain at the club that gave him his professional debut at 16, and re-signed his brother Antonio last summer.

He was well aware that his sibling's return was widely regarded as a barely concealed reward for him renewing his contract until 2021 on July 11, after refusing to do so just over a month earlier.

However, he felt - or at least hoped - that all had been forgiven when he finally committed his future to the club and made a point of thanking the fans for the warm reception he received in his first game at San Siro after the conclusion of one of the longest-running transfer sagas of the summer.

I didn't expect it, but I am happy at the way they greeted me and promise I will always give everything for this jersey," he said after the Europa League qualifier against Craiova. "They know I am Milan's first fan.

"For me, it is as if nothing happened and I am proud to wear the Milan shirt."

He even apologised to the fans for "this uproar that has been created around me", going so far as to delete his Instagram account after it had been hacked to post conflicting messages about his future.

However, with the outspoken Raiola unsurprisingly deciding against ending his war of words with Milan sporting director Massimiliano Mirabelli, the discontent never really dissipated and Donnarumma's form, unsurprisingly, continued to suffer.

At the height of the contract impasse, he was christened 'Dollarumma' by outraged Milan fans and even had fake money thrown at him while representing Italy at the European Under-21 Championship in Poland.

Almost inevitably, his campaign was marked by unusual mistakes and previously unseen lapses in concentration.

“That kid is not calm, you can see it a mile away," a concerned Dino Zoff told the Corriere della Sera. "I think he has got himself involved in a bigger mess than he can handle. Just look at the Euros: he was not good for the whole tournament.

"Unfortunately, I expected it, because after the storm that erupted around him in the media I would have been agitated when I was 40 years old, so imagine it for him."

And that is the key point: many seasoned professionals would have buckled under such pressure but not Donnarumma.

He has rediscovered his very best form after a trying start to the season and been rightly rewarded with a second-placed finish in the 2018 NxGn, which lists the 50 best players in the world born in 1999 or later.

When Donnarumma won the title a year ago, we already knew that he had the talent to become a goalkeeping great but what we now know is that he also has the temperament to do so. How else could he have dealt with becoming the subject of a bitter national debate?

As Sinisa Mihajlovic - the man who had handed Donnarumma his Milan debut - quite correctly pointed out, half of Italy turned against his former protégé last year.

Even Lega Nord (an Italian political party) leader and Rossoneri fan Matteo Salvini felt compelled to air his always divisive views, stating: "I don’t know if I’d like to still have him in the Milan jersey. If you say no to me once, as far as I am concerned, it’s over."

Luckily, Milan's directors were far more forgiving, with Mirabelli pinning the blame for all of the acrimony on a "showman who is trying to hurt our club" – a not-at-all subtle reference to Raiola.

In addition, when Gattuso succeeded Montella as coach, he vowed "Gigio will have my protection” and he has proven a man of word, offering a passionate defence of his No.1 after the Verona debacle.

Donnarumma, in turn, has responded with the best run of form in his fledgling career. There was an unfortunate mistake in the Europa League loss to Arsenal at the Emirates but he has kept four clean sheets in his last five Serie A appearances, while he was a colossus in the Coppa Italia semi-final success over Lazio, saving two spot-kicks in the shootout.

In essence, he has come first circle; from hero to zero to hero again. Indeed, he endured more abuse in six months than most players have to deal with over the course of their entire career, and yet here he is, still standing.

"For his age, experience and characteristics, Gigio remains a unique player," former Milan goalkeeper Marco Amelia told Goal.

"For some time now he has been living with the weight of the incredible pressure linked to his future and the rumours concerning him. None of us at that age, Gigi Buffon included, were carrying that huge boulder.

"The ability to withstand and manage pressure is essential. Taking into account all that gravitates around him, he is showing great maturity and composure."

Indeed, while he may only be 19, Donnarumma has already shown that it doesn't matter what anyone throws at him - from offensive banners to fake money - he can handle anything.

As for that traumatic night at San Siro four months ago, Gattuso has admitted that Donnarumma was understandably "shaken" by the sorry episode but argued that the fact that he was reduced to tears only makes his subsequent return to form all the more impressive.

"I can only thank him for what he's doing," Gattuso said. "For his age, he's the best goalkeeper in the world right now."

And the toughest.