As Italy cruised to their 11th consecutive victory under Roberto Mancini, a rare note of disapproval was heard from the stands. The whistles in the 89th minute of Sunday’s win over Wales at the Stadio Olimpico were not aimed at the manager or even his team, but instead at their 22-year-old goalkeeper.
Gianluigi Donnarumma was heading for the dugout, exiting the game to be replaced by Salvatore Sirigu. Mancini, who cites never playing in a World Cup among his greatest career regrets, wanted to make sure that his backup keeper got at least a few minutes on the pitch at what might be his last international tournament.
Donnarumma had not done much wrong during the game. He had not done much of anything at all. There was a single, straightforward save from a Joe Rodon header, and impressive composure shown when Aaron Ramsey ran through at the start of the second half. Donnarumma faced the Welsh player down at his near post and bought time for defenders to recover.
The fans who whistled – a minority, it should be said – were not protesting against his performance but the choices that led him to run down his contract at Milan and set himself on course to join Paris St-Germain this summer. Supporters of the Rossoneri feel betrayed by Donnarumma, who graduated from their club’s academy.
Accusations of greed are not new. Donnarumma had fake banknotes thrown at him during an Italy Under-21 game in Krakow four years ago after his agent, Mino Raiola, told Milan that he was not interested in renewing his deal. Although the player eventually changed his mind, extending through to this summer, some wounds never fully healed.
Even so, it was striking to hear those grievances intrude on an otherwise idyllic Italian start to Euro 2020 (they face Austria in the last 16 on Saturday having won their three group games). The closest you could find to disharmony elsewhere was Nicolò Barella winding up his old friend Manuel Locatelli by throwing bandages at him on the bench.
Donnarumma’s importance to the national team is unquestioned. Mancini has insisted repeatedly that he considers all 26 members of his squad to be starters, yet the goalkeeper is one of only three – alongside Jorginho and Leonardo Bonucci – who have in fact started every game.
He has not conceded in his last 874 minutes played for Italy – the third-longest streak in the history of the national team. It is a shared achievement, made possible by the dominant performances of Donnarumma’s teammates. He has needed to make only two saves at this tournament to date.
Italy have found a new model for achieving the defensive excellence with which the country has often – if not always rightly – been associated. Mancini’s team keep the ball away from Donnarumma’s goal by dictating the play high up the pitch, occupying their opponents’ halves with possession and a co-ordinated high press, led from the front by Ciro Immobile or Andrea Belotti.
Yet the system still relies on a defence that knows how to react when opponents break through. The outlandish recovery speed of Leonardo Spinazzola is an asset, allowing him to bomb forward and join the attack from the left-back position, while Italy’s right-back tucks in. Giorgio Chiellini’s enduring tenacity at centre-back was highlighted with a 92nd-minute sliding challenge to preserve the clean sheet against Turkey, celebrated as enthusiastically as a goal.
Yet Bonucci is the one defender Mancini has thus far refused to do without. The Juventus player has always offered superior distribution from the back, and his relationship with Donnarumma is also a strong one. He was playing at Milan in 2017, when the keeper’s reluctance to sign a new contract led fans to target him for the first time.
Bonucci was seen comforting Donnarumma in one of his lowest moments, the then teenager weeping in the changing room at San Siro before a game against Verona. He had been targeted by Ultras with a banner that commanded him to hurry up and leave, defining his brother – also a goalkeeper on Milan’s books – as a “parasite”.
“Something untrue came out that really hurt me,” Donnarumma would tell Milan TV years later. “Bonucci consoled me in that moment and told me not to pay them any mind … He helped me a lot.”
Years have passed, and the context has changed. Donnarumma had his medical at PSG last week. With Italy’s path to the final of Euro 2020 going through London and Munich, he might not play another game in his home country for some time.
In any case, he did not appear fazed by those whistles in Rome. Donnarumma is focused on extending his unbeaten run. To break the record held by Dino Zoff, he would need to hold out until the last minute of the semi-final. “I’ll be happy if he does,” said Zoff this week. “That would mean we’ve made it to the final”.
As a collective, Italy could claim the record even sooner. Donnarumma has missed two friendlies during the current winning run, during which Sirigu, Alessio Cragno and Alex Meret kept a further two clean sheets. That means Mancini’s team have not conceded for 1,055 minutes – just 88 short of Zoff.
The World Cup winner celebrated his 79th birthday in February, but believes that “even I could have played in goal in the Italy team that beat Turkey”. Donnarumma has not needed to do an awful lot more in the two games since. Italy have made winning look easy at Euro 2020. There will be more to overcome than a few angry whistles as they move into the knockout stage.