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Wilfried Gnonto: Ex-Inter wonderkid playing a starring role at the top of Swiss football

14:00 EAT 05/04/2022
Wilfried Gnonto NXGN GFX
The 18-year-old forward, who left Italy in 2020, has scored 10 goals this season as FC Zurich close in on their first league title in 13 years

To fully understand the impact that teenage forward Willy Gnonto has had on certain sections of the FC Zurich fanbase, then Marco Schonbi's YouTube channel is a good place to start.

It is only a small channel, with less than a handful of subscribers and just one video - 'Willy Gnonto Song'.

Sung and composed by Albis Ryder, the song is accompanied by a cartoon image of Gnonto dancing along, and is an ode to the young star helping lead Zurich's march towards the Swiss title.

"Here is Willy Gnonto, the Italian 'SuperJoker'," the song, which is also available on Spotify and Apple Music, begins, while the chorus ends with the phrase, "Dribbing, shoot, goal, pronto!".

Gnonto, though, is neither a cartoon character - even if Ryder's song also compares him to the Looney Tunes character, Taz - nor a player who can be described in such basic terms when it comes to his footballing ability.

Yes, he is a player whose dribbling ability ensured that he stood out from a young age when he was coming through the ranks at Inter, and his goalscoring has truly shone through this season, but to frame him as being just a dribbler who pops up with the odd goal would be unfair.

Gnonto's game intelligence and movement in the final third are what allow him to pop up in so many goalscoring positions, while his versatility in terms of being able to play across the forward line has proved invaluable since his step up to the senior ranks.

In some quarters, he has been likened to Franck Ribery, though the 18-year-old has his own idols that he looks to learn from.

"I'm inspired by Raheem Sterling, but I play football thanks to Lionel Messi," he told Cronache di Spogliatoio. In a further interview with FC Zurich's website, he added on Messi: "For me he is the best in history."

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Gnonto might be becoming a fan favourite in Switzerland, but his footballing story begins in the city of Verbania, overlooking Lake Maggiore in the north west of Italy.

Born to Ivorian parents, Gnonto was kicking a ball as early as he can remember.

"My father was a worker, my mother a waitress, and they never made me lack for anything," he explained.

"We lived near a small pitch. Maybe it was destiny, I don't know, but when I looked out of the window, I could only see the ball. I often went down to play until late in the evening.

"Growing up, it was school, football, school and more football!"

That school was in Suno, around 80 kilometres outside of Milan, and was where Gnonto's talent was first spotted by Inter at the age of nine.

"After two seasons in Suno, a football school affiliated with Inter, I had some trials at the club," he said. "I went to Appiano (Inter's training ground) once a week, then I returned home. In the end, they signed me."

It quickly became clear that Gnonto had what it took to make it as a professional, and he thrived at all age-group levels, forming a strong strike partnership with fellow Italy youth international Sebastiano Esposito.

As luck would have it, Esposito now also finds himself in Switzerland, where he is enjoying a loan spell at Basel, but his move came 12 months after Gnonto decided to leave the San Siro outfit

"I wanted to play," he said of the decision to reject a professional contract at Inter and instead join Zurich in a deal worth €200,000 in the summer of 2020.

"Before coming here, I thought I always wanted to play for Inter. For me, there was only the Nerazzurri shirt.

"But the management here immediately made me understand that I would have the right space to develop. At my age, you can't sit on the bench."

Gnonto did start life at his new club playing for the Under-21s, but after scoring in each of his opening two games, he was swiftly promoted to the first team, where he provided an assist - albeit via a long-range shot that deflected in off a team-mate - on debut against FC Vaduz.

That was the first of four assists that he contributed as he made regular appearances off the bench, before on the final day of the season he found the net for the first time in his senior career, again against Vaduz.

To say that opened the floodgates would be an exaggeration, but certainly Gnonto's record in front of goal has improved immeasurably in his second season at the club.

He has netted 10 times in all competitions, which included a run of 10 games between November-March where he scored seven goals, including the winner against defending champions Young Boys and a strike against second-placed Basel.

The teenager's form, which has seen him provide a goal or assist every 91 minutes in 2021-22, has helped Andre Breitenreiter's side open up a 12-point gap at the top of the table as they close in on their first league title since 2009.

Gnonto has been an almost ever-present, missing just a solitary match through suspension, though he is still largely being used as an impact substitute.

Gnonto has carried that form into the international game, where he scored five goals in six qualifying matches for Italy as they secured their place in the 2022 U19 European Championship to be played in Slovakia in July.

That is set to form part of an interesting summer for Gnonto, whose contract at Zurich is up in 2023, leading to a number of Serie A clubs closely monitoring his situation.

“My motto is 'always have fun'. Whatever I do, I try to have fun," Gnonto told Zurich's website in a recent interview, and he certainly seems to be enjoying his football at present.

If the catchy YouTube songs are anything to go by, the club's fans are also thrilled to have the 'Italian Superjoker' within their ranks.

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