When Italy flopped in the play-offs against North Macedonia and were condemned to miss their second World Cup finals in a row, Roberto Mancini promised to rebuild his team with the next generation of talent.
His search led him to Willy Gnonto, an explosive teenage striker from Inter Milan’s youth ranks who helped FC Zurich win the Swiss title last season and joined Leeds United on transfer deadline day earlier this month.
Gnonto’s £3.8million move to Elland Road was largely unheralded, eclipsed at the time by the furore of their failed £20m swoop for Bamba Dieng of Marseille and since by the postponements following the death of Queen Elizabeth II and the subsequent period of mourning.
Yet he is an exciting signing — a diminutive player of 5ft 5in with supreme balance and electric speed, likened to a young Raheem Sterling, who can play either side of a centre forward or as a second striker — and Leeds fans could get a glimpse of him when England face Italy in Milan tomorrow.
Mancini promoted Gnonto to Italy’s senior squad for the Finalissima match against Argentina at Wembley in June, then handed him a debut three days later against Germany in the Nations League.
He started the next game, against Hungary, and came on in the 64th minute against England, behind closed doors at Molineux, before scoring in a 5-2 defeat by Germany in Dortmund.
In doing so, Gnonto became Italy’s youngest goalscorer at the age of 18 years and 222 days, breaking a record that had stood since 1958. He was nominated for this year’s Golden Boy prize, a prestigious award founded by Turin-based newspaper Tuttosport to find Europe’s top emerging talent.
‘He is a boy, 18 years old, and should not be put under too much pressure,’ said Mancini in June.
‘He has to grow quietly. For his age, he knows how to play football like few other players and is very fast. If he grows calmly, without too much pressure on him, he can show his important qualities and he is an intelligent boy, he can grow.’
Gnonto was born in Verbania to Ivorian parents and raised in Baveno, on the shores of Lake Maggiore, where his mother Chantal worked for more than 20 years as a waitress at one of the resort’s big hotels.
His talent was clear from an early age. At eight, he joined Inter and progressed well, earning Italy call-ups, and he was a star of the 2019 Under 17 World Cup in Brazil, scoring three goals.
At 16, he quit Inter for Switzerland in search of a clearer pathway towards first-team football, and went straight into the squad at Zurich, making his senior debut before his 17th birthday.
He scored eight goals in 33 games last season as Zurich won the Swiss Super League and he featured in the qualifying rounds of the Champions League and Europa League before moving to Leeds.
‘The first time I saw him, I thought he had the potential to be an international talent,’ said Zurich’s sporting director Marinko Jurendic. ‘In the first season, he did well and we saw his potential in a team fighting relegation.
‘In the second season came the transformation, his evolution under a new coach in a team performing well. Playing mostly as a substitute, he became the best substitute in the whole league. Every time he entered the game he made a difference, scoring goals and making assists.
‘He has the talent in his body and the strength in his mind to become a big player.
‘In some ways, like a boy, he’s unpredictable. It is a joy to see him play. In some ways, he is mature like a 25-year-old player. It doesn’t matter who he plays against. We have to be patient with him but he has everything to become a regular starting player for the Italian national team.’
Gnonto’s first action in the colours of his new club came for Leeds’ Under 21s in a 6-2 win over Southampton, in which Patrick Bamford scored a hat-trick.
‘Willy was really good,’ said Under 21s boss Michael Skubala after the match. ‘You can see what he can do in possession. He’s new to the way we want to play so he’s got lots of learning to do, and he’ll do that, but at times he was really exciting to watch.’
His strengths will suit Jesse Marsch’s full-throttle style but this week Gnonto’s journey will take him back to Milan, where it all began.