AC Milan’s shot-stopping prodigy, Gianluigi Donnarumma, celebrates his birthday on Saturday, February 25.
Likened to Gianluigi Buffon, Donnarumma began his career with Milan in 2015, becoming the second youngest goalkeeper ever to debut in Serie A, aged 16 years and 242 days.
He immediately broke into the starting line-up, earning a reputation as one of the most promising young goalkeepers in the world.
He made his senior international debut last year, becoming the youngest goalkeeper ever to appear for Italy, aged 17 years and 189 days.
Milan TV have put up the below video of custodian’s 18 best saves to celebrate his birthday.
Napoli are one of Italian football’s great outsiders. A combination of a strong Neopolitan character, their presence as the only genuine superclub in the south and, crucially, the fact they are one of the few one-club cities among the elite gives them a unique identity.
It’s harboured a rebellious streak which has led to the tifosi embracing so many maverick talents with such affection; while the significance the city’s port plays in its culture and economics could be behind why so many of these favourite sons have been imports.
Ciro Ferrera, Giuseppe Bruscolotti and Antonio Juliano retain iconic status within the Stadio San Paolo but the real revered superstars of the Partenopei, those who have entertained and excited, particularly in their most successful eras, have been from beyond the borders of Italy: Diego Maradona, Careca, Ezequiel Lavezzi, Edinson Cavani and now Marek Hamsik.
Maradona heads that list, given his achievements in dragging Napoli from regional irrelevance to two Scudettos and a UEFA Cup, and his position in club folklore as ‘The King’ is unlikely to ever be usurped.
However, one player close to etching his name above El Diego, at least in the record books, is Hamsik.
The Slovak is six goals behind Maradona’s all-time record of 115 and while it’s unlikely he’ll be celebrating reaching the mark over their two Champions League ties against Real Madrid – the first leg kicking off on Wednesday at the Bernabeu – his position among the legends of Gli Azzurri past is assured.
It’s now commonplace to see his portrait adorning the walls of cafes and bars in the city next to the Argentine genius. A vibrant goalscoring midfielder, who, like Maradona, carries a subversive persona with his mohawk and tattoos, has inked himself into the culture of the club, literally and figuratively.
“Once I met a fan who had a tattoo of my face on his body. I gave him my signing and when I met him later, I noticed that he has tattooed also my autograph,” Hamsik tells Sport360. “They are incredible.”
“They are interested only in football, everything is happening around this game. They are passionate and live for their team. All kinds of people support Napoli by their heart.”
It’s not just Hamsik’s goals which lead to this adoration, his ferocious all-encompassing midfield style stirring crowds. Whether via his incisive passing, energy or ability to cover so much space on the field, or his selflessness and willingness to track back and defend.
This inspirational way of playing has made him seem a natural fit as club captain, but he admits leadership is a quality he’s had to work on. At 22, he was named Slovakia’s youngest ever skipper, however a year later he had lost the armband to defender Martin Skrtel following a dressing room referendum.
He adds: “I have been a captain in all teams I have played in but personally, I do not think that I am a born leader. The reason why I always wore a captain’s armband was rather that coaches believed in me.”
In his early teens, Hamsik starred for local club Jupie Podlavice, earning a trial at Czech heavyweights Sparta Prague. However, an offer was never forthcoming so he instead chose to move to Slovan Bratislava, but Slovakia’s most successful club were experiencing financial problems; players had to shower in cold water and they couldn’t afford the €5,000 transfer fee.
In stepped father Richard, who sold the family’s Skoda Felicia and borrowed the rest to raise the money and facilitate his son’s move at 14.
Hamsik recalls: “I stood in front of a very important decision: to leave my home. My parents let me decide. I wanted to exploit that chance and move to a higher level.”
And higher he rose, very rapidly; just six matches into his career at Bratislava, Brescia came calling to whisk the 17-year-old to Italy for ¤500,000 in 2004.
Two strong seasons in Serie B then alerted Napoli who paid €5.5m and, 430 appearances later, he stands on the brink of overtaking a legend of world football.
“There is only one Maradona, I will never be a bigger player than him. However, I would be very happy to beat his record. I can do it this season, but if I don’t manage it, I will try it again next year,” he said in the wake of Napoli’s 7-1 mauling of Bologna earlier this month.
Hamsik can talk in terms of “next year” because he signed a four-year contract in the summer, turning down a lucrative offer from Tianjin Quanjian in China.
That loyalty has also only fuelled his cult status. Whereas Maradona, Careca, Lavezzi and Cavani all eventually moved on, Hamsik’s love for Naples appears eternal.
A glance at the Serie A Capocannoniere chart currently makes interesting reading for Premier League fans, with a number of familiar names among Italian football’s leading scorers.
Gonzalo Higuain – a player often linked with a move to England but who instead chose Juventus – is sitting joint-second on 15 goals, joined there by rumoured Arsenal target Andrea Belotti of Torino and Napoli’s Dries Mertens.
Inter Captain Mauro Icardi is just one goal behind that trio, but it is unquestionably the name at the top of the list that is surprising to most.
In truth, AS Roma supporters are perhaps as shocked as their Manchester City counterparts to see that Edin Dzeko is the leading marksman on the peninsula.
His current tally of 17 league goals in just 23 appearances is more than he has ever managed for the Giallorossi and beats his highest Premier League tally of 16 back in 2013/14.
Indeed, the Bosnian striker has not found the net this many times since his last full season with Wolfsburg almost seven years ago.
14 - Edin Dzeko has scored 17 league goals this season, 14 more than in the first 23 games of the Serie A 2015/16. Stronger. pic.twitter.com/d1ogiXr4vb— OptaPaolo (@OptaPaolo) February 8, 2017
With five more goals in the Europa League and two in the Coppa Italia, most defences have suffered when facing Dzeko, his ability to get on the scoresheet prompting him to be linked with Real Madrid last week.
Various reports in Spain discussed that possible move, citing Karim Benzema’s drastic loss of form and coach Zinedine Zidane’s reluctance to use Alvaro Morata, which will likely mean both men move on this summer.
That would obviously create an opening up front, but even with so many goals to his name this term, does Dzeko really have what it takes to succeed at the Bernabeu?
Simply put, no he doesn’t. This is unlikely to shock fans in Manchester or Rome, with supporters at the Stadio Olimpico often booing him even this season. “In England there was less pressure but at Roma it’s similar to Bosnia, they do not criticise you, they insult you,” the 30-year-old told Il Messaggero last month. “At home game’s I’ll be ok three times, but if I miss a fourth time, the insults start again. It’s as if they are waiting for the right opportunity to hammer me!”
Therein lies the problem. While he has more goals than anyone in Serie A, he wastes far too many opportunities before hitting the back of the net.
According to WhoScored.com, no player in Europe’s top five leagues has taken more shots than Dzeko’s current tally of 120, with Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s total of 95 the next highest. When noting that the Swedish striker has also played 100 minutes more and scored just two fewer league goals, the profligacy of the Roma striker truly becomes apparent.
#Repost @officialasroma with @repostapp ・・・ @ed_dzeko: "We don't quit"... E stasera torna [email protected] con #RomaFiorentina... #DajeRoma! 🔶🔴 *** Follow @officialasroma on Instagram *** #ASRoma #Dzeko #Roma #SerieA #matchday #forzaroma #giallorossi #serieatim #olimpico #video #clip #football #quotes #calcio #italia #edin
In somewhat of a stunning revelation, Dzeko’s own agent believes the forward wouldn’t actually be interested in such a move either.
“He is already at a big club,” his representative Silvano Martina told Mediaset when asked about the Madrid speculation earlier this week. “Roma have a great ownership, a huge fan base and I don’t see any reason to change if you are in a good place.”
Going on to note that he has scored over 200 goals in his career, the agent perhaps went too far when stating that Dzeko “is the only player who reminds me of the great Marco van Basten.” However, he did eventually make a sensible comment that explains much of his client’s recent success.
“The team plays for him and Luciano Spalletti leaves him free to play his game,” Martino explained, a situation that would be impossible to imagine in a Los Blancos side boasting the talent of Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale.
It has only been his willingness to sacrifice himself and work for his team-mates that has allowed Benzema to feature so prominently in Madrid over the last few years, while the likes of Higuain simply moved on when unable to play in a similar manner.
This season has been a perfect storm for Dzeko. Francesco Totti’s slow waltz into retirement has seen him become little more than a bit-part player, making late cameo appearances in the last five or ten minutes of matches. Diego Perotti and Stephan El Shaarawy have struggled for form and fitness, often leaving the Bosnian No.9 as the only option for the central role in Spalletti’s attack.
There, the play of Radja Nainggolan and Mohamed Salah and Roma’s other creative players has led to that constant stream of chances.
It must also be noted that 12 of his goals have come in 11 home league appearances, meaning that he has scored just five times in 12 away fixtures, struggling to have the same impact on the road.
He has undoubtedly improved from last season and two goals away to Napoli show that he can make a difference when it matters, but as AS Roma’s Curva Sud knows all too well, he can also still manage to miss numerous important chances.
The boos are unlikely to stop no matter how high that goal tally goes, just as Edin Dzeko is unlikely to find himself swapping the Stadio Olimpico for the Santiago Bernabéu any time soon.