Willy Gnonto: How the Lionel Messi-loving Leeds winger made history with Italy after leaving Inter at 16

Gnonto GFX
The 19-year-old, who could face England on Thursday, is reaping the rewards of a gamble that other young Italian players may soon try to emulate

Willy Gnonto has a simple motto: "To always try to enjoy myself." And for him, that means playing regular football. When he was a kid growing up in Verbania, it was all he thought about. Which was understandable, in fairness. His family lived above a small pitch.

"When I looked out the window," he later explained, "I only saw the ball."

Not much has changed in the interim. Like every footballer, Gnonto just wants to play.

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Unlike some of his peers, though, he's willing to take risks in order to make it happen.

  1. 'Why did nobody in Serie A sign Gnonto?'
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    'Why did nobody in Serie A sign Gnonto?'

    Serie A is earning plenty of plaudits at the moment, with six sides through to the quarter-finals of continental competition.

    Italian football, however, still has several major problems, as national team coach Roberto Mancini has been at pains to point out ahead of the commencement of the Azzurri's Euro 2024 qualification campaign.

    "We have three teams in the quarter-finals of the Champions League, but out of the three teams, there are seven or eight Italians at most," he told reporters. "This is the reality."

    He is adamant that Serie A sides need to find more room in their senior squads for youngsters, citing Gnonto as a case in point.

    "Why did nobody [in Serie A] sign him last summer?" he asked again during a press conference on Monday. "He could have played at Sampdoria or Fiorentina. Instead, he's a starter in the Premier League.

    "Gnonto, then, is one of those kids you have to have faith in, because if you put your trust in them, they'll repay it. But I understand that for the coaches it's not easy, because they're the first to pay [for poor results]."

    Indeed, as Udinese scout and former Italy striker Andrea Carnevale told GOAL, "The problem is that the biggest clubs in Italy are all under pressure to win, every single season, and if they don't, coaches get sacked.

    "So, they want experienced and proven players, many of whom come from abroad. So, there is no space for the Italian kids.

    "And it's a difficult problem to solve, because this need that the clubs have to win all the time isn't going to change any time soon."

  2. Gnonto's gamble

    So, what can be done? Well, one possible solution, at least from the perspective of Italy's most exciting prospects, is to do as Gnonto did.

    At 16 years of age, he made an incredibly bold move: he turned down a professional contract with Inter and decided to leave the club he'd been with since the age of eight for FC Zurich.

    "Many people said that I left only for the money, but it wasn't like that," he later explained. "It was the right thing to do in order to play in the first team."

    And he wasn't wrong. Gnonto started out in the Zurich Under-21s, but progressed rapidly to the first team and quickly became a fan favourite.

    'The Willy Gnonto song' may not have taken off quite like 'Numero Uno', a German ode to Luca Toni, but its mere presence on Youtube and Spotify was testament to his popularity among the Swiss side's supporters.

    The lyrical comparison to the Looney Tunes character 'Taz' also felt apt, given the whirlwind nature of his impact, but Gnonto himself revealed that while it was Lionel Messi who had made him fall in love with football, he felt that when it came to his playing style, Raheem Sterling was his source of inspiration.

    A desperate Mancini simply saw a young talent of enormous potential and called Gnonto up to the senior squad, even though the winger had yet to even make an appearance for the U21s.

    Just like Zurich, Mancini felt compelled to gamble on Gnonto. And his risk was rewarded.

  3. Making history with Italy
    Getty Images

    Making history with Italy

    Just five minutes into his international debut, in a Nations League game against Germany against Bologna, he set up the equaliser for Lorenzo Pellegrini.

    In the return clash in Monchengladbach 10 days later, Gnonto opened his Italy account, thus becoming the country's youngest-ever goalscorer.

    It was at that point that a return to Serie A seemed inevitable, because it wasn't just Sampdoria and Fiorentina who were interested, as Mancini noted.

    Newly promoted Monza and Sassuolo, who have an excellent reputation for developing players, were also in the race for a teenager who had scored eight times during Zurich's Swiss Super League triumph.

    In the end, though, it was only Leeds who agreed to meet the €4.5 million (£4m/$5m) asking price (plus bonuses and a cut of a future transfer fee).

    Right now, that's looking like a bargain. After initially lining out for the U21s, Gnonto broke into the Leeds senior squad shortly before the World Cup and became a regular at the turn of the year.

    He scored his first Premier League goal against West Ham on January 4, but his second was even more special.

    It arrived in a 2-2 draw at Manchester United and literally silenced Old Trafford – "because it was so unexpected, after less than a minute!"

    Gnonto's exploits are making plenty of noise back home, though, with many fans hoping he features, at the very least off the bench, in Thursday's Euro qualifier against England.

  4. Eye on the ball

    Eye on the ball

    The clamour for his services in Serie A is also intensifying.

    In Italy, there have already been rumours of Juventus offering Leeds a player-plus-cash deal involving Moise Kean to bring Gnonto back to Italy this summer.

    But the very real fear a year after he was available for a knockdown fee is that Gnonto would prove too expensive for even Serie A's biggest sides, particularly as there has always been talk of Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal monitoring his progress at Leeds.

    Of course, if Gnonto's unique career path to date has taught us anything, it's that he'll do whatever's best for his prospects of regular time, and that could obviously mean remaining at Elland Road.

    "I'm the same person I've always been and my parents are still the same, so we just try to remain detached from everything that's happening around us," he said after making history with Italy last year.

    "It's clear that it's great pleasure to be in the newspapers and on television but we mustn't lose sight of the important things."

    In a way, he's still the kid looking out that window in Verbania, with his eyes fixed firmly on the ball.