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England beware Leeds’ Italian wonderkid… Willy Gnonto, 18, is Italy’s youngest ever goalscorer

As Italy flopped in the play-offs against North Macedonia and were doomed to miss their second successive World Cup finals, Roberto Mancini vowed to rebuild his squad 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 £3.8m move to Elland Road was largely unheralded, at the time overshadowed by the furore of their failed £20m swoop for Bamba Dieng from Marseille and since the postponements following the death of Queen Elizabeth II and the subsequent period of mourning.

Willy Gnonto is an exciting young striker who could play for Italy against England tomorrow
Willy Gnonto is an exciting young striker who could play for Italy against England tomorrow

Willy Gnonto is an exciting young striker who could play for Italy against England tomorrow

Italy manager Roberto Mancini has vowed to rebuild his side and focus it around youth
Italy manager Roberto Mancini has vowed to rebuild his side and focus it around youth

Italy manager Roberto Mancini has vowed to rebuild his side and focus it around youth

Still, he is an exciting signing – a diminutive player at 5ft 5in with superb balance and electric speed, compared to a young Raheem Sterling who can play either side of a center 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, and 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 to 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 award, a prestigious award founded by Turin-based newspaper Tuttosport for to find Europe’s best new talents.

Gnonto became his country's youngest ever goalscorer earlier this year, aged just over 18
Gnonto became his country's youngest ever goalscorer earlier this year, aged just over 18

Gnonto became his country’s youngest ever goalscorer earlier this year, aged just over 18

“He’s an 18-year-old boy and shouldn’t be put under too much pressure,” Mancini said in June.

‘He must 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 in one of the resort’s major hotels.

His talent was evident from an early age. As an eight-year-old, he joined Inter and made good progress earning Italy call-ups and was a star at the 2019 U17 World Cup in Brazil, scoring three goals.

At 16, he left Inter for Switzerland in search of a clearer path to first-team football and went straight into the squad at Zurich, where he made his senior debut before his 17th birthday.

He joined Jesse Marsch's Leeds side for £3.8m on transfer deadline day this summer
He joined Jesse Marsch's Leeds side for £3.8m on transfer deadline day this summer

He joined Jesse Marsch’s Leeds side for £3.8m on transfer deadline day this summer

Gnonto has already played several games for Italy and appeared against England at Wolves
Gnonto has already played several games for Italy and appeared against England at Wolves

Gnonto has already played several games for Italy and appeared against England at Wolves

He scored eight goals in 33 games last season as Zurich won the Swiss Super League and featured in the Champions League and Europa League qualifiers before moving to Leeds.

“The first time I saw him, I thought he had the potential to become an international talent,” Zurich sporting director Marinko Jurendic said. ‘In the first season he did well and we saw his potential in a team that was fighting for relegation.

‘In the second season came the transformation, his development under a new coach in a team that is performing well. He played mostly as a substitute and became the best substitute in the entire 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 great player.

Gnonto scored eight goals in 33 games last season as FC Zurich won the Swiss Super League
Gnonto scored eight goals in 33 games last season as FC Zurich won the Swiss Super League

Gnonto scored eight goals in 33 games last season as FC Zurich won the Swiss Super League

He has been labeled as 'mature as a 25-year-old' by Zurich sporting director Marinko Jurendic
He has been labeled as 'mature as a 25-year-old' by Zurich sporting director Marinko Jurendic

He has been labeled as ‘mature as a 25-year-old’ by Zurich sporting director Marinko Jurendic

‘In some ways, as a boy, he is unpredictable. It is a pleasure to watch him play. In some ways, he is mature as 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 starter for the Italian national team.’

Gnonto’s first action in the colors of his new club came for Leeds’ U21s in a 6-2 win over Southampton, with Patrick Bamford scoring a hat-trick.

“Willy was really good,” U21 boss Michael Skubala said after the game. ‘You can see what he can do in possession. He is new to the way we want to play so he has a lot to learn and he will, 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.

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