Giulio Donati’s Improbable Summer: from Serie C to Champions League

Yesterday morning, Giulio Donati must have been craving to read the papers. Just a few hours before, he played in his first “Big Wednesday” in his new stadium, Bayer Leverkusen’s BayArena, and recorded his first assist in a lopsided 4-0 Champions League win against Shakhtar Donetsk, making one of his dreams come true. He played with the enthusiasm of a 23-year old kid and the experience of a veteran. To think that just a few months ago, in May, the Italian right full-back was facing the possibility of playing in Italy’s third division, one wouldn’t believe his eyes.

Donati’s impressive story dates back to last May, when he bitterly commented on Grosseto’s relegation to the Lega Pro (former Serie C): “This year our team did not perform well, and it’s a shame since my positive individual performance would have been appreciated more if the team had done better. Unfortunately the relegation only means one thing: we failed.”

Donati, however, didn’t take long to turn things around, proving that Inter’s scouts had had yet another good intuition (Balotelli, Santon and Obi are just some recent examples). The former U-21 international, after growing up in the red and black of Lucchese, switched colours to join Inter’s youth setup. After a couple of years at the shadow of the San Siro (without the joy of debuting in Serie A, though), he started his apprenticeship in the Italian second division: first for Lecce, then with Padova and, finally, with Grosseto last year, where, despite his good performances and 28 appearances, the team failed to avoid relegation.

Fortunately for him, he didn’t have time to stop and think what could have or should have been, since he was kept busy enough by the U-21 European Championship in Israel, in which he reached the final stage with Italy, only to lose 4-2 against a superior Spanish squad. Despite the four goals conceded in the final, the international press unanimously agreed about the strength of the Italian rearguard, able to let in only one goal in the previous four games, with Donati- together with Luca Caldirola (now at Werder Bremen) and Francesco Bardi (two other products of Inter’s academy)- as absolute protagonist.

Donati came back from Israel with the confidence of a young rising star, willing to finally prove himself at Inter. Before he could even wear the “grownups” black and blue jersey again, though, Marco Branca’s phone rang and on the other side was a legend of the ‘80s Serie A: Rudi Völler. He had followed the U-21 Championship closely and had decided that his team, Bayer Leverkusen, needed Giulio Donati. “He’s exactly the type of player we’re looking for”, Völler said, “he’s strong and of great potential.” Negotiations were quick, as Bayer offered 3m€ that were immediately considered as enough for a 23-year old who was still to prove himself at high levels. At least this is what Inter thought a few months ago.

Now, two months into the new season, Donati is a regular starter for Bayer Leverkusen, a team at the top of the Bundesliga with 22 points- only one shy of Bayern München- and fighting for a spot in the top-16 in Europe, having won two games out of three in their Champions League group. He has quickly become a fan favorite thanks to his macaronic German (remember Giovanni Trapattoni, anyone?), inventing a new hashtag that has quickly spread among Bayer supporters-#StärkeBayer , an improbable German version of the very Italian “Forza” Bayer- and was praised for this by his club, as it demonstrates “how well Giulio identifies himself with Bayer’s colours.” Together with Luca Caldirola, his teammate with the Italian U-21 squad, he represents the precursor of a new trend for young Italian players, that is to expatriate in the early phase of their careers. As Serie A supporters, we just hope this can be an arrivederci. In the meantime, StärkeDonati!

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