When Italy failed in the play-off against North Macedonia and was sentenced to miss the World Cup for the second time in a row, Roberto Mancini promised to rebuild his side with the next generation of talent.
His search led him to Willy Junonto, the explosive young striker from Inter Milan who helped FC Zurich win the Swiss title last season and joined Leeds United on a transfer deadline earlier this month.
Gnonto’s £3.8m move to Elland Road was largely unannounced, mitigated at the time by the £20m botched uproar for Bamba Dieng of Marseilles and since due to delays following the death of Queen Elizabeth II and a period of Subsequent mourning.
Willy Gnounto is an exciting young striker who could play for Italy against England tomorrow
Italy coach Roberto Mancini has promised to rebuild his team and focus on youth
However, he’s an exciting signature – a petite 5ft 5in player with superb balance and electric speed, likened to young Raheem Sterling, who can play either side as center forward or as a second striker – and Leeds fans can get a glimpse of it. Him when England face Italy in Milan tomorrow.
Mancini promoted Junonto to the Italian first team in the Finalissima match against Argentina at Wembley in June, then made his debut three days later against Germany in the Nations League.
He started the next match, against Hungary, and entered in the 64th minute against England, behind closed doors in Molino, before scoring in the 5-2 loss against Germany in Dortmund.
In doing so, Junonto became Italy’s youngest goalscorer at 18 years and 222 days, breaking a record since 1958. He was nominated for this year’s Golden Boy Award, a prestigious award established by Tuttosport based in Turin to find the best emerging talent in Europe.
Junonto became his country’s youngest ever scorer earlier this year, aged just over 18
“He’s an 18-year-old boy, and he shouldn’t be under too much pressure,” Mancini said in June.
It should grow quietly. For his age, he knows how to play football like few other players and he is very fast. If he grows calmly, without much pressure on him, he can show his important qualities and is an intelligent boy, he can grow up.
Junonto was born in Verbania to Ivory Coast parents and grew up in Baveno, on the banks of Lake Maggiore, where his mother Chantal worked for more than 20 years as a waitress in one of the resort’s large hotels.
His talent was evident from an early age. At the eighth, he joined Inter and progressed well, getting a call-up to Italy, and was a star in the 2019 Under-17 World Cup in Brazil, scoring three goals.
At the age of 16, he quit Inter for Switzerland in search of a clearer path towards first-team football, and went straight to the team in Zurich, where he made his debut just before his 17th birthday.
Join Jesse Marsh’s Leeds side for £3.8m on the day of this summer’s transfer deadline
Gnonto has already played several matches for Italy and appeared against England at Wolverhampton
He scored eight goals in 33 matches last season, as Zurich won the Swiss Super League, and participated in qualifying for the Champions League and European League before moving to Leeds.
“The first time I saw him, I thought he had the potential to be an international talent,” said Zurich sporting director Marinko Jorndic. In the first season, he did really well and we saw his potential in a relegation-fighting team.
In the second season came the transformation and development under the leadership of a new coach in a team that performs well. He played mostly as a substitute, and became the best substitute in the entire league. Every time he got into 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.
Gonto scored eight goals in 33 matches last season when FC Zurich won the Swiss Super League
Zurich sporting director Marinko Jorndic described him as ‘mature like a 25-year-old’.
In some ways, boy-like, unpredictable. It is a pleasure to see him play. In some ways, he’s as mature as a 25-year-old. 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 act in his new club’s colors came with Leeds’ Under 21s in the 6-2 win over Southampton, where Patrick Bamford scored a hat-trick.
“Willie was really good,” Under-21 coach Michael Scobala said after the match. “You can see what he can do on possession. He’s new to the way we want to play, so he has a lot of learning to do, and he will, but in some Sometimes it was really interesting to watch.
His strengths will match Jesse Marsh’s stifling style, but this week’s Gontoto trip will bring him back to Milan, where it all began.