Toulouse's Alban Lafont is Ligue 1's answer to Gianluigi Donnarumma
When Sinisa Mihajlovic decided to promote Gianluigi Donnarumma to AC Milan's starting lineup in October 2015, he gave inspiration to one of his colleagues as well. The Italian prodigy was the youngest ever goalkeeper to start a game in Serie A at the age of 16 years and eight months. Just a month later, Alban Lafont made his debut for Toulouse, becoming the youngest ever custodian in Ligue 1.
"That was not planned. Alban wasn't supposed to join the first team so quickly", said Teddy Richert, who worked with goalkeepers at Toulouse academy last year. In fact, Lafont was only the fifth choice at the start of the 2015-16 season. And yet, Ali Ahamada and Mauro Goicoechea made a lot of mistakes and clearly lost the plot. Marc Vidal and the young Numan Bostan were not considered good enough to replace them, and manager Dominique Arribage chose to follow Mihajlovic's example.
He had nothing to lose. Toulouse started the season in disastrous fashion, going 13 matches without a win with the worst defensive record in the league, seemingly on their way to relegation. After the 2-0 defeat at Guingamp, which featured another poor performance by Ahamada, Arribage made his choice. Lafont might not have impressed in the defeat to Eibar in a friendly two weeks previously, but the coach gambled on him in the home fixture against high flying Nice on Nov. 28.
The keeper was just 16 years and 10 months old at the time, breaking the record set by the legendary Mickael Landreau at Nantes in 1996, but he looked mature and calm way beyond his age. The whole team was much more confident with him between the posts. Toulouse won 2-0 and quite amazingly kept a clean sheet for the very first time that season. A week later, they thrashed fellow strugglers Troyes 3-0 away, and Lafont was outstanding again. A star was born. Just like Donnarumma, he instantly became irreplaceable.
Lafont has always been good at sports and learned to swim before celebrating his third birthday. That is hardly surprising given his genes. His father Rolland was a decent tennis player, while his mother, Laurence Ilboudo Marchal, currently a member of Burkina Faso's National Assembly, represented her country in handball. Alban was born in Burkina Faso and only moved to France at the age of nine after his parents divorced.
That was roughly the time when he chose football over tennis, but was mostly used as midfielder or striker in his early days. After a goalkeeper at the tiny AS Lattoise was injured, Lafont asked to try his luck in his place. The results were truly outstanding as Alban stopped two penalties in a single match. In the Under-13 team, he alternated between playing in goal and in attack. Gradually, everyone understood that his best position required gloves.
By 2014, numerous scouts had noticed Lafont's talent, and he was able to choose between a number of top division clubs, including Monaco and Bastia. Toulouse were closest to his home, and the family felt that it would be the best option. They were definitely right. They youngster jumped from the Under-17 to the Under-19 team, and then was sensationally promoted to the senior squad just when things couldn't possibly get worse for the team.
Playing for Milan can be mentally stressful, but fighting against relegation at a club like Toulouse is arguably even tougher. Like Donnarumma, Lafont proved to be extremely cool under pressure, explaining after his debut that excitement helped him to be fully concentrated. Being able to manage anxiety and turn it into your favour is a sign of a top footballer, and the youngster showed remarkable leadership qualities as well. He wasn't shy to shout out instructions to much more experienced teammates and dominated the penalty area. The fact that his close friend, the 19-year-old centre-back Issa Diop, also made his debut against Nice clearly helped. Their partnership became crucial to Toulouse's chances of survival.
Mihajlovic was controversially fired at Milan in April, and Arribage didn't finish last season either. With results going against Toulouse, he was relieved of his duties in March, replaced by Pascal Dupraz who proved to be an outstanding motivator. Naturally, he kept Lafont and Diop in the starting lineup, and the team won five out of the last nine games, climbing to safety in a dramatic fashion.
For the young keeper, that was a triumph of huge proportions. Toulouse conceded 28 goals in the first 14 games of 2015-16 season without him, and only 27 goals in 24 matches with Lafont between the posts. His role could hardly have been overstated. "Alban is the true leader of our defence. He is incredibly relaxed," Dupraz said.
Gregory Coupet, one of France's best goalkeepers of the previous decade, is full of praise for the youngster as well: "He is a smart goalkeeper who reads the game well. It is possible to feel that. He brings a lot of confidence despite his young age." Landreau is also a big fan. "I like his calmness. Alban makes quality decisions and his positioning is surprisingly good. A great career is ahead of him," he said back in December.
Now that Toulouse have survived, their targets are much higher this season, and the results have been extremely positive so far. Ahead of hosting Monaco on Friday, they are fourth in the table, just five points behind their rivals. With three wins in three matches at Stadium Municipal, their home record is perfect, and it includes the 2-0 win over Paris Saint Germain three weeks ago. Lafont was absolutely imperious that night, stopping everything Edinson Cavani and his teammates could throw at him, making four top-class saves and keeping a clean sheet.
In fact, Toulouse only conceded six goals in eight games this term, and two of them were penalties. Such stats are better than those of Donnarumma at Milan. While the Italian prodigy is seen as the natural heir to Gianluigi Buffon, Lafont could easily inherit Hugo Lloris for France in a few years. He also has an option to play for Burkina Faso, of course, and the national team coach Paulo Duarte tried to convinced him to come back to his roots in Africa, but having played for Les Bleus at youth level, it is hard to see the starlet making such a decision.
"I will be his biggest fan regardless of his choice," Alban's Burkinabe mother said.
One thing is certain -- these are the two best goalkeepers in the world born in 1999. Donnarumma is much more famous because he plays for a bigger club in a better league, but Lafont is hardly less talented. If their respective career arcs continue, it's not hard to imagine that they will meet each other on various important occasions in Europe during the next decade.
Michael Yokhin is ESPN FC's European football writer. Follow him on Twitter: @Yokhin