Stole Dimitrievski waited outside the away dressing room at the Tose Proeski stadium. The North Macedonia goalkeeper wanted an autograph.
He had shown up for training before last Saturday’s qualifier against Italy in a classic football shirt. It was the pink Juventus goalkeeper jersey Gigi Buffon wore in the 2003 Champions League final, a soporific game that perhaps would have woken up with a bang had a bullet header from AC Milan striker Pippo Inzaghi gone in.
Instead Superman pulled on his cape and made one of the best saves of his career.
Dimitrievski was nine years old at the time and seemed to become that boy again when Buffon, in his new ambassadorial role with the Italian team, walked out with a big smile and signed his old shirt for him.
Inside the Italy locker room, Buffon’s hulking successor Gigio Donnarumma prepared to face the Skopje moonlight knowing that there were no fans waiting for him, only critics. The pink pages of La Gazzetta dello Sport flying off the printing presses called him the “No 1 problem.”
Donnarumma had been one of the scapegoats when Italy lost a World Cup play-off to North Macedonia at the Renzo Barbera in March 2022. He had been unable to reach the only goal of the game; a low, skipping Aleksandar Trajkovski shot from outside the box. Last weekend did not bring the same level of ignominy. Italy didn’t lose for a start. They were 1-0 up with less than 10 minutes to go only for Enis Bardhi to whip a free-kick past Donnarumma and clinch another proud result for his country.
As was the case last year, the armchair goalkeeper coaches were out in force. Donnarumma had stepped the other way as Bardhi struck the ball. Wrong-footed, he was beaten at the very post he was defending. Only one game into his new job, Luciano Spalletti would be forgiven if he had briefly wondered why on earth he’d left his sabbatical bottling wine on his Tuscan vineyard for the pressure of qualifying Italy for a major tournament. The draw in North Macedonia made Tuesday’s game against Ukraine a must-win. It was billed by RAI’s commentator Alberto Rimedio as a play-off to avoid a play-off.
Spalletti’s choices immediately came under scrutiny. There were calls for him to drop Donnarumma. To say he has an embarrassment of riches available to him in the goalkeeper position would be an overstatement. But competition is particularly strong. “In the last three or four years the pool has gotten much deeper,” Buffon said at a press conference called to announce his new role. “There are now five or six (Italian) goalkeepers playing at a very high level and that’s without getting into Donnarumma who is well-established and competing with the world’s best.”
Since Donnarumma’s move to Paris Saint-Germain, however, he is no longer one of the golden boys of the local press corp. His decision to go to a less visible league and play for a club which other global superstars have either left (Lionel Messi and Neymar) or always seem on the brink of leaving (Kylian Mbappe) has not helped his cause. Outside of Italy where he has been hyped since even before his debut as a 16-year-old for AC Milan, Donnarumma does not have as high profile as his talent probably merits. One of the reasons is he never played in the Champions League with Milan. Another is Milan won the league in the year he left, a year in which Mike Maignan played so well no one missed Donnarumma even though he was the penalty shoot-out hero and player of the tournament when Italy won the Euros.
His performance in the final against England has been quickly forgotten. Out of sight and out of mind in Paris, where Buffon went to play only when he was 40, other Italian goalkeepers have stepped into the spotlight in Serie A. Ivan Provedel was named Goalkeeper of the Year for his role in Lazio’s 21 clean sheets and return to the Champions League. Guglielmo Vicario’s form at Empoli was rewarded with a move to Tottenham where he has taken the place of a World Cup winner in Hugo Lloris. Some thought Vicario should get his chance against Ukraine as much for the symbolism as his shot stopping. Last year Vicario’s family took in a Ukrainian child, Milan, who was displaced by the Russian invasion. A case was also made for Alex Meret, the goalkeeper who played under Spalletti in Napoli’s first title winning side in 33 years on account of his relationship with Italy’s new coach and familiarity with his methods.
When the line-up came out at San Siro, there were five changes to the team that drew in Skopje. Donnarumma wasn’t one of them. Rather than dodge a decision, Spalletti doubled down. He left out captain Ciro Immobile, started Giacomo Raspadori up front and gave Donnarumma the armband instead. It was an emphatic show of faith in his No 1. Ever the Tuscan bard, Spalletti said: “Gigio’s never been forgiven for being the prodigal son and making it to the top so fast because of his gift, his talent. And given that we’ve all struggled and had to work hard to make it to a certain level and someone else, more gifted then…” comes along. It’s then that one of the seven deadly sins, envy, emerges in Donnarumma’s detractors.
Having a manager back you like Spalletti did must have been more than reassuring for Donnarumma. Having Buffon around too can only help. “I learnt everything from him,” Donnarumma said last week. “Technique, how to occupy your goal, the composure. An important thing for a goalkeeper is to not allow yourself to be overwhelmed by emotion. Gigi was No.1 at that.”
Donnarumma showed it in the final of Euro 2020 when he was so focused on saving a penalty he didn’t immediately realise Italy had won the competition for the first time in more than half a century. He showed it on Tuesday at San Siro too when he didn’t let the occasion or the crowd get to him. Donnarumma or Dollarumma as he was known after he became one of the highest paid players in Serie A as a teenager has not been welcome here since he dithered on signing a new contract with Milan, the Neapolitan’s boyhood club, and doubled his money at PSG where he is reportedly paid around €12m a year.
“Luckily he’s got broad shoulders,” Donnarumma’s agent Enzo Raiola told Sportitalia as he walked into San Siro. “I feel sorry for the guys who aren’t like him, the guys who get compared with Roberto Baggio one day and are called a dud the next. The fans, the world of journalism, social media we all need to calm down. Tonight the national team is playing. We have to stay united like other countries do but we’re unable to. I hope Gianluigi doesn’t get whistled tonight like in the past here.”
But Donnarumma did get whistled.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Man of the Match Davide Frattesi said. “It was a disgrace. I don’t get it.” Donnarumma played under the Curva Sud in the second half, the stand where the Milan ultras reside and even with the match delicately poised at 2-1 every touch Donnarumma made was a chance for a select hardcore to vent. It didn’t faze him. He only conceded when Federico Dimarco decided to make a pass to Andriy Yarmalenko in his own six-yard box rather than clear the ball. Unable to restore the two-goal cushion that Frattesi gave Italy in the first half, Donnarumma didn’t do anything to make his team nervous. He made the saves he had to make and Italy, at least for now, eased the worries about whether or not they’ll be in Germany next summer to defend their crown. Qualify and Donnarumma will start that tournament whatever people might think about him.
His talent, as Spalletti continues to say, is such a gift it wouldn’t come as a surprise if one day a young goalkeeper on the opposing team hung around outside his locker room hoping Donnarumma signs his shirt.
(Photo: Matteo Ciambelli / DeFodi Images via Getty Images)