|Patrick Cutrone (left) and Gianluigi Donnarumma of Milan|
In a year during which the Italian national team failed to qualify for the World Cup, the Italian league flourishes, providing spectacle and competitiveness.
The numbers support the talk of resurgence. For a brief twenty-four hours last week, Serie A overtook the Premier League in the UEFA ranking to sit in second behind Spain. The lead evaporated when Lazio lost to Eintracht Frankfurt the next day, but the gauntlet for now matters more than the math. Inter had dispatched Tottenham on the first matchday, and, on the second, Napoli nibbled at Liverpool until they made a hole big enough for Lorenzo Insigne to flit through in the last minute and score. Liverpool defender Virgil van Dijk described it as the only deserved result for his club so far this season. Coach Jurgen Klopp concurred.
But results and ranking can be fleeting. Serie A still has a self-esteem problem, a kind of weird inferiority complex, where foreign is good, and domestic bad. Nowhere is this more evident than how quickly commentators and fans berate up-and-coming youngsters for mistakes. Foibles quickly become character flaws in Serie A; a misstep a pathology.
The journey from predestinato (predestined) to sopravvalutato (overrated) can be brutally swift. To emerge from this crucible the way Cutrone and Donnarumma have is a Herculean task.
France Football released the Kopa Trophy list of the ten best players under the age of twenty-one yesterday, and three players from Serie A are on it, making it the most well-represented league. The presence of Roma's Justin Kluivert is noteworthy, but not as remarkable as the fact that Milan are the only club to contribute more than one player: goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma and striker Patrick Cutrone.
Donnarumma is 19 and Cutrone 20. Both have risen to stardom in front of an exacting San Siro public, and both are emblematic of former president Silvio Berlusconi's credo liberally quoted and requoted at the tail-end of his reign as club president--a Milan, young and Italian.
Now, it would be an absolute scandal if France's and PSG's Kylian Mbappe didn't win in December. He will, of course, but the presence of Cutrone and Donnarumma is a rejoinder to critics both in Italy and abroad.
Cutrone is averaging an astonishing 0.40 goals per game--higher than Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo managed at the same age. Donnarumma has already inherited the number 1 spot from Gianluigi Buffon for the Italian national team. Both players commit errors. Donnarumma can be clumsy when playing the ball with his feet; Cutrone can sometimes take the wrong option in front of goal.
But these nominations remind us that growing pains and pure quality are not mutually exclusive, and we need to have a more nuanced and layered understanding of player development. Despite of all the refinement he lacked on the field, Milan coach Gennaro Gattuso has treated the fragile egos and psychology of both players expertly, standing sentinel between the media and his charges. Cutrone and Donnarumma are not his inventions, but they are his and Italian football's patrimonio (heritage). They are here, and they should be loved, protected, and, yes, celebrated.
List in full:
1. Houssem Aouar (Lyon and France)
2. Trent Alexander-Arnold (Liverpool and England)
3. Patrick Cutrone (AC Milan and Italy)
4. Ritsu Doan (Groningen and Japan)
5. Gianluigi Donnarumma (AC Milan and Italy)
6. Amadou Haidara (RB Salzburg and Mali)
7. Justin Kluivert (AS Roma and Netherlands)
8. Kylian Mbappe (Paris Saint-Germain and France)
9. Christian Pulisic (Borussia Dortmund and USA)
10. Rodrygo (Santos and Brazil)