Saturday, October 01, 2016

Il Capitano: Zanetti

(This piece was originally published in These Football Times print magazine in September 2016.)

To an untrained eye, the tidy and sturdy figure emerging in possession looks almost top heavy. Momentarily awkward with the ball at his feet, he very briefly lends the illusion of losing balance. Counterpoising the upper body strength of Paul Gascoigne in his prime, and the dancing feet of George Best, balance is carefully sustained. In the pristine stripes of Italy’s Internazionale, he’s just dispossessed an attacker, controlled the ball, beat the same attacker, held off four strong challenges, and set-up another wave of attack.

The sight is blissfully familiar to millions of football fans. It is the artistry and prowess of Javier Zanetti.

Inter’s eternal number four is a rarity in many senses of the word. As one of Argentina’s most gifted defensive players, it could be argued he went against the grain. La Albiceleste have good form in producing two rudimentary types of defenders. Zanetti, though, is not an untamed libero, and neither did he rely on the dark arts.

Zanetti’s was an unassuming, total and technical expertise. His application as a full-back or defensive midfielder was sublimely simple. With purposeful longevity and breathtaking consistency, he made the ordinary beautiful, and laced it with moments of sheer brilliance.

The numbers are impressive, too; 5 Scudetti, 4 Coppa Italia, 4 Super-Copa Italiana, a Champions League, a UEFA Cup, and a FIFA World Club Cup winners medal. 19 years (15 as captain) and a record 858 appearances for Inter, and another record 143 caps for Argentina. The humble attitude of a bonafide gentleman consistently shrouded those numbers and moments of brilliance with a blanket of modesty.

When Argentina and England collided at the 1998 World Cup, the occasion provided a fitting example of Zanetti’s marriage of glorious application and modest simplicity. As something of a developing theme, Zanetti’s admirable virtue, and the contrasting subsequent actions of Michael Owen, David Beckham, and Diego Simeone transpired to gloss over a personal moment of brilliance.

At the business end of a deliciously intricate free-kick routine, it was Zanetti who bought a definitive match level at 2-2. In one fluid and natural movement, he received a brisk pass with his back to goal, cushioned the ball with his right foot, and drilled it into the top corner with his left.

Glenn Hoddle’s England may well have spent a significant portion of half-time contemplating how a full-back could be so expertly two-footed, and finish like a natural striker.

The goal, the physical control it demanded, and the way it was made to look ordinary, depicted Zanetti in a nutshell. As other events of that fateful match cast Zanetti’s brilliance to the shadows, so played out a charming truism of the man. For all the accolades, trophies, appearances, and honours, Zanetti is a man who did what he did for the pure joy.

Having finally hung up his boots on May 18th 2014, Zanetti was fittingly appointed as Inter’s Vice-President. While it remains to be seen if his current role will bring equal happiness, his selfless work ethic and professionalism can be counted upon.

Naturally, such an unassuming disposition hails from humble beginnings. The aptly named Dock Sud area of Buenos Aires exists as a polar opposite to romantically lavish images of Argentina’s capital. It’s where the working class Zanetti family called home, and it hosts little in the way of expansive boulevards or quaint European-style cafes.

Born to a bricklayer and a cleaner, one could safely conclude Javier and family were far too busy to yearn for luxury. Along with his elder brother, Sergio, Javier soon found football as not an escape, but merely another avenue upon which to apply pragmatism for the sake of pleasure. He hinted at the professionalism to come by tending to the local pitch during his spare time.

Almost inexplicably, though, Zanetti’s football career was nearly over before it began. In 1989, a raw 16 year-old Zanetti had trials with one of Argentina's ‘big 5’, Club Atlético Independiente. However, after a matter of weeks coaches dismissed him as too slight and too weak.

Undeterred and with a defining maturity, he knuckled down and completed his education. Upon leaving school, Zanetti took great pleasure in securing a job delivering milk with a cousin. Upon completion of a shift which started at 4am, he then took great pleasure assisting Rodolfo, his father, as an assistant bricklayer.

“I liked my father's work”, he’d later recall, “but above all I liked the idea of doing something concrete and useful. Building a house is a metaphor that I like, it’s at the core of my life philosophy: starting from the bottom and reaching the top”.

In joining second division Club Atlético Talleres RE in 1991, Zanetti started at the bottom. Suffice to say he soon became an immediate fixture in the team. Still, few would have predicted such a rise to the top of world football, which would soon be a reality.

After a solitary season in the second tier Zanetti was signed by Banfield. Whilst quickly adorning himself to the El Tarado supporters, he became known by the moniker of el tractor, which shouldn’t require translation. Already famed for his stamina and positively relentless attitude, Zanetti further endeared himself to the Banfield fans for rebuffing interest in his signature from both River Plate and Boca Juniors.

If Zanetti wasted little time in establishing himself at Banfield, Daniel Passarella, Argentina coach at the time, was equally swift in handing 21 year-old Zanetti an international debut.

Three months after the 1994 World Cup, a rejuvenated Argentina faced Chile in a friendly, and won 3-0. The match marked the start of an international career which would hold more troughs than Zanetti’s club career. Rising to international prominence meant more suitors lined up for Zanetti, and they weren’t restricted to the cream of the Argentinian Primera División.

In the summer of 1995, Massimo Moratti, an Italian petroleum tycoon turned football club President, assumed control of Inter Milan. Over the course of the following years Moratti is rumoured to have spent €1.5 billion of his personal fortune on football superstars; Zlatan Ibrahimović, Wesley Sneijder, Luis Figo, Patrick Viera, Samuel Eto’o, Christian Vieri, Iván Zamorano, Hernán Crespo, and Brazilians Ronaldo, Roberto Carlos, Adriano, and Maicon, most of whom were signed in their glorious prime.

The very first signing he oversaw was that of Javier Zanetti. Well, alongside fellow Argentine Sebastián Rambert, at least. As Zanetti’s Milanese love affair enters its third decade, Rambert was sold to Real Zaragoza in 1996 after failing to make a single appearance.

With the possible exception of several Silvio Berlusconi actions and soundbytes, Milano is a classy city. Its social etiquette is strict, and those in the public eye carry an extra weight of responsibility. Their application, presentation, professionalism and personal life all fall unforgivingly under the microscope. For a footballer of Zanetti’s style, and for a gentleman of his integrity, Milano proves itself a suitable home.

Naturally, it didn’t take long for avid ‘La Gazzetta’ readers, writers, and editors across the Milanese football divide to realise they had nothing on Zanetti. Each week for two decades, Zanetti offered only dedicated professionalism, and joy.

Serving testament to Zanetti’s longevity and rectitude, along with Rambert and countless teammates he has ‘out-lived’ an incredible 17 managers during his 19 year Inter playing career. From Roy Hodgson to José Mourinho, Marcello Lippi to Héctor Cúper, Rafa Benítez to Roberto Mancini, and everyone in between, each manager made Zanetti a mainstay. Post 1999 and the retirement of legendary Inter defender Giuseppe Bergomi, they all made Zanetti their captain.

The list of qualities which made Zanetti an ideal leader are plentiful. Though for a defender and defensive midfielder who played all his football in Argentina and Italy, Zanetti’s discipline record is both exemplary and astonishing. Having been red-carded for the first time in February 1999, Zanetti would go a remarkable 12 years before receiving the second and final marching orders of his career.

Incidentally, it is only Roy Hodgson who invoked any public display of aggression. With the second-leg of the 1997 UEFA Cup Final delicately poised at 1-1 in extra time, Hodgson chose to replace Zanetti with Nicola Berti.

Having already switched Zanetti to a wide right position to accommodate Paul Ince, Zanetti wasn’t happy at being hauled off with a penalty shoot-out looming. Tellingly, Zanetti still found the grace to not only hug Berti as he entered the action, but affectionately embrace Hodgson whilst berating the Englishman at the same time. Definitely a clip worth looking up.

At 36 years of age, Zanetti’s already dazzling Inter career was crowned as the curtain closed on a dreamy 2009/10 season. Fellow countryman, Diego Milito, rightfully took plaudits for his Scudetto, Coppa Italia, and Champions League winning goals, but it was il capitano who remained the driving force. Of the 28 players deployed by Mourinho throughout the campaign, Zanetti clocked up the most appearances, and started every game in which he played.

However, the glittering high’s of holding trophies aloft rarely exist without some form of pain. As with most leaders with an obvious abundance of integrity, suffering is something of a rite of passage. Ironically for Zanetti, the pain of missing a second consecutive World Cup came just days after winning the 2010 Champions League.

In a hauntingly similar fashion to José Pekerman’s snub prior to the 2006 World Cup, Zanetti had played in the majority of qualifiers, yet was left out of the final squad. Journalists and pundits in Europe and South America were perplexed. Under the erratic stewardship of Diego Maradona in 2010, Zanetti lost the captaincy to Javier Mascherano, and lost his place to Jonás Gutiérrez.

Likely to come as little surprise, Zanetti stood tall and refused to walk away from international football. With Maradona ousted, Zanetti was recalled in September 2010. Along with Gabriel Batistuta, the pair were honoured by the Argentinian Football Association, and subject to a moving evening of tribute prior to a friendly against Spain.

Zanetti did eventually retire from national team duty. The 2011 Copa America saw his last contribution for La Albiceleste, and following Lionel Messi’s flirtation with international retirement, only Mascherano is a current threat to Zanetti’s appearance record.

Domestically, and in the increasingly unpredictable context of modern Inter in Serie A, Zanetti kept going. With his fortieth year looming on the horizon, Zanetti registered thirty-plus appearances in the 2010/11, 2011/12, and 2012/13 seasons, and remained one of Inter’s star players. After rupturing his achilles heel in April 2013, only the 2013/14 season saw injury hamper il capitano.

All good things must come to an end, though, and despite the dedication to physical conditioning Zanetti is only human. “I just want to play at least once more in front of the Inter fans, and I would hope it could be more than once”, Zanetti defied and pleaded shortly after diagnosis.

It is therefore an overwhelming testament to his dedication, fitness, and strength of mind, that Zanetti did indeed force himself back for a 12 appearances throughout 2014. The last of which, on May 18th and just 3 months shy of his fortieth birthday, he started in central defence as Inter were defeated away to Chievo Verona.

Upon retiring, and swapping the San Siro pitch for its boardroom, Zanetti came to prominence thanks to a collection of photos. Browsing Zanetti’s collection of annual Panini mugshots provides a couple of striking conclusions. Firstly, it is possible for an embryonic black and blue striped kit to suffer several striking designs. Secondly, and most relevant for this article, is that Zanetti appears to get younger across the span of two decades.

It should be said that an almost alarmingly consistent hairstyle plays a significant role in Zanetti’s age-defying. His defiantly black and neatly cropped locks are not once out of place. Coincidentally, Zanetti has remarked upon his hair several times. “If I had a lock of hair out of place, I would not feel OK”, he told Italy’s ‘OK Salute!’ magazine in 2009. “I am a precise person in everything I do. Feeling my hair in place gives me confidence. It’s a question of image but also of character”.

Perhaps most tellingly, though, is that his hair always frames a fresh and youthful face. It is the face of a professional athlete, and one who took his profession and his body seriously. From Mourinho to Zanetti’s wife, Paula de la Fuente, many can testify that notion.

“It’s an honour to coach him”, Mourinho claimed en-route to the historic treble in 2010. “He has strength and character, and these things make a difference in a player. Physically and mentally he doesn’t seem like a 35 year-old man.”

Perhaps more conclusively comes a tale from Zanetti’s autobiography ‘Giocare da Uomo’ (Play Like a Man), which really should be translated into English. Paula, Zanetti’s childhood sweetheart and wife of 17 years shares a telling tale of their wedding day. Though it’s not what might be expected from a footballer, it is Zanetti to a tee.

Following the exchange of rings, and before guests were due to arrive for the reception, Zanetti asked if his new wife would mind if he went out for a quick run. While it would be easy for peers to poke fun at such a priority, it defines exactly how Zanetti was able to maintain such lofty levels of fitness right up till his final season as a professional footballer.

In Italy, and together with compatriot Esteban Cambiasso, he created ‘Leoni di Potrero’, a foundation to support children with social isolation problems. ‘Fundación PUPI’ was formed by Javier and Paula in Argentina, and supports social integration of children from low income families.

As one might expect, Javier Zanetti appears every inch the role model on and off the pitch.

Paolo Maldini, AC Milan’s own champion of longevity called Zanetti his “most respected enemy”. Ryan Giggs cites Zanetti as his “most difficult opponent”, and labeled him as “a complete player”. Maradona, speaking before that 2010 World Cup snub, said, “Zanetti is better than all of us put together”.

The duplicitous world of modern football appears home to fewer and fewer bonafide gentlemen, fewer selfless professionals, and showcases many an example of a questionable role model. Javier Zanetti, on the other hand, is undoubtedly a gentleman, a selfless professional, and a peerless role model.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Amsterdam's Last Party

(This article was originally published on These Football Times on September 29th, 2016)

Jari Litmanen celebrates putting Ajax 2-0 up. Image via.

September 14th 1994, Ajax vs AC Milan, and never before or since has a single football match transversed generations with such poignancy and awe. Under a pregnant Dutch sky, an archaic, city-centre stadium hosted 21st century football in a 20th century setting. Naturally, the poignancy is a recent burnden, heightened by a stuttering transition from European kings to selling clubs. An often painful transition two decades in the making.

Back in 1994, with the Champions League in the infancy of a remodelling, elements of the occasion were recognisably modern. The logo, the anthem, and the heightened sense of corporate fuelled pomp and ceremony were present, yet Bobby Haarms sat chain smoking in a primitive dugout. Not a sponsor-embroidered, leather, car seat in sight. Values, pro’s, and con’s of past and present all merged beautifully.

On a rain-sodden and muddy pitch, regrettably yet sensibly a thing of elite football’s past, two European heavyweights collided. Youthful artistry faced established and esteemed legends. In the dugouts, 48 year-old Fabio Capello and 43 year-old Louis van Gaal were at their cocksure and preening best.

The 1994/95 Champions League is rightfully etched into football's collective memory for its final. Ajax’s youthful dream team, clad in distinctive deep purple, and confirming something of a powershift in European football, defeated and stunned AC Milan 1-0. However, their often-forgotten group stage meeting at the Olympisch Stadion in Amsterdam proved equally memorable. Unlike the final seven months later, it was a match with no history, no precedent, and little in the way of Dutch expectation.

Casting aside Ajax’s 1992 UEFA Cup title, recent continental success had been hard to come by. Thirteen years had passed since the Dutch club had progressed beyond the European Cup first round. Milan, by contrast, had made the Champions League/European Cup final in four of the previous five seasons, winning on three occasions. The most recent coming against none other than Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona.

The group stage encounter set van Gaal’s upstarts on the road to European dominance. Already stylish rulers of the roost domestically, locking horns with the might of Milan paved Ajax’s way to two successive Champions League finals.

If the modern era’s first-round of Champions League group games have become predictably careful affairs, one could be forgiven for thinking this one was a final. For the sanguine van Gaal it was by design. His line-up, formation, and dare we say philosophy, would become fabled.

Ajax of the mid-nineties were the epitome of a bold, attacking 3-5-2, or 3-4-3, or 3-1-2-3-1. Like all art forms, Ajax’s tactics were open to interpretation. Van Gaal had his side laced with an echt Amsterdamse swagger, and a stubborn if yet unrealised confidence. Despite domestic success, Ajax’s surefootedness was an audacious approach against the giants of Milan.

Despite the clubs apparent gulf in European pedigree, there was more than a degree of familiarity between players and coaches. As the teams lined up in a small and dingy tunnel, Frank Rijkaard, who had transferred back to Ajax from Milan in 1993, received a touchingly warm embrace from Fabio Capello. Ruud Gullit, more than familiar to most of the Ajax team was in his second spell with Milan, and the last remaining of their famous Dutch trio.

Along with generous rainfall, the evening air carried a fervent atmosphere. A sell-out crowd lent vocal support to Freddie Mercury as ‘We Are the Champions’ was belted out of a dated loudspeaker system. Perhaps a tip of the hat to the reigning European champions, or to the unexpected champions-elect.

On the playing surface, puddles formed and reflected the glow of several flares.

Perfectly blending youth with experience and tactical discipline with fluidity, van Gaal’s Ajax were the perfect storm. The back three of Danny Blind, Frank de Boer, and Michael Reiziger, offered defensive steel and transitional fluidity. Blind, with poise and experience locked into every tight curl on his head, was kingpin. De Boer and Reiziger intelligently covered space, filled in as central defenders when needed, and intelligently fed the midfield.

Rijkaard’s intelligent versatility just ahead was crucial. At the prime of his playing intellect, and with aging legs comfortably covered by those around him, Rijkaard was constantly three passes ahead.

With emphasis placed firmly on attack, natural width and alarming pace came in the form of Marc Overmars and Finidi George in the final third. The presence of Rijkaard dropping into defence meant de Boer and Reiziger could easily switch their roles of central defenders or supporting wing-backs.

Tactical discipline came in midfield. Showing positional intelligence, and impressive obedience for his tender years, Edgar Davids accompanied Rijkaard in various holding roles. With strict instructions not to overtake Overmars and George in front, Ronald de Boer complemented Davids and Rijkaard. All three were crucial in Ajax’s ability to attack from all over the pitch, and offensively swarm the opposition.

In something of a wizard and apprentice duo, Ajax’s front two of Jari Litmanen and eighteen year-old Patrick Kluivert provided everything the enlightened European football fan could ever want from a strike force.

Much has been made of the youthfulness of van Gaal’ Ajax, and rightly so. Momentarily removing Rijkaard and Blind from the equation, the average age of Ajax’s starting eleven was a staggering 22. Adding the experienced defenders, that number only increases to 24.

By contrast the average age of the Milan team was four years senior. Even with the decorated abundance of Franco Baresi’s experience wrapped in the captain's armband, seniority was made to count for little.

While it should be recognised that the Italian’s had Alessandro Costacurta, Cristian Panucci, Marcel Desailly, Demitri Albertini, Simone, and Massaro all injured or suspended, nothing should be taken away from the perfection witnessed in Ajax colours. Milan’s starting eleven still included the aforementioned Baresi and Gullit, in addition to Paolo Maldini, Zvonimir Boban, Roberto Donadoni, and Dejan Savićević.

Ajax dominated the first half. Gullit, playing in an advanced role perhaps beyond his thirty-one years, was alienated. Ajax combined tactical artistry with dogged tenacity, and came closest to breaking the deadlock through Kluivert and Davids.

The opening goal came five minutes into the second half when Ronald de Boer cut a deft finish over the top of an advancing Sebastiano Rossi. De Boer picking the ball up deep, starting and finishing the move via intelligent movement and a neat one-two with Kluivert.

Finidi George came agonisingly close to doubling the advantage a few moments later. With some high pressing to have Jurgen Klopp’s mouth watering, Davids snapped into a block, and George steamrollered onto the loose ball. His shot shaving the post with Rossi beaten.

In the shadows of the glare and hue of the Olympisch Stadion’s aged floodlights, the Amsterdamse crowd hit fever pitch. Sensing a scalp and a statement of intent, they bayed for more. Naturally, they weren’t waiting long.

Jari Litmanen, who had somehow been dancing, twisting, and turning the ball through what was fast becoming a quagmire, smashed home the second on sixty-four minutes. Like de Boer for the first, and evidencing the relentless fluidity of Ajax, Litmanen started and finished the decisive move.

Allowed space in the middle, Litmanen advanced, teased, prized, and fed Overmars to the left. After making light work of stand-in full-back Stefano Nava, Overmars whipped a deceptive cross which just about evaded Baresi, and everyone other than Litmanen. Already falling backwards, the sublime control and power generated on the half-volley epitomised Litmanen’s subtle skillset. His connection perfect, Rossi beaten.

“Twee nul!” The tone of audacious surprise in the voice of Dutch commentator, Eddy Poelmann, is almost heart warming.

Overmars himself came close to adding a third ten minutes before the end. In showcasing the aggressive, precise, and purposeful transitions through the lines, the move started with a Milan corner. Savićević received a short corner, and immediately fell victim to a perfect sliding tackle celebrated like a goal. Ronald de Boer picked up the charge, fed Litmanen who steadied himself before feeding Overmars, who sliced wide from a tight angle. Defence to attack in 3.2 seconds.

The following day’s ‘de Volkskrant’ heralded “strong-willed Ajax”, and proclaimed “a direct hit to Milan’s crown of invincibility”.
For Amsterdammers there is rightful romance in recalling football at the Olympisch Stadion. It should, of course, be noted that the gezellig venue played host to European football for another eighteen months after the Milan match. AEK Athens, Hajduk Split, and Bayern Munich were all defeated enroute to the 1995 final in Vienna. The latter, a storming 5-2 win over Giovanni Trapattoni's German champions featuring a rousing half-time performance by Dutch violinist André Rieu.

With the Amsterdam ArenA edging closer to completion, Ajax returned to the Olympisch Stadion to defend their European crown the following season. A group stage victory against Real Madrid kicked-off an impressive campaign, and home wins followed against Grasshopper, Ferencváros, and Borussia Dortmund. Despite losing the semi-final home leg to Panathinaikos, Ajax recovered to win emphatically in Greece. Against Juventus in the final, it took extra time and penalties to condemn Ajax to a somewhat unfortunate defeat.

However, despite witnessing seven further victories enroute to successive finals, no occasion quite matched the September 1994 encounter with Milan. There was a full throttle, romantic, European glory night under rain and flood lights in central Amsterdam, and it was the last of its kind.

Ajax moved into the ArenA in the summer of 1996. A modern 53,000 capacity home fit for all occasions, yet it’s out-of-town location and perceived lack of homely atmosphere see that it’s a bond of modern necessity rather than true love. Though the ArenA has played host to no fewer than fifteen Champions League campaigns in its twenty-year history, they have all been rather short lived and unspectacular.

By 1997, and in addition to losing their spiritual home, Ajax’s dream team was decimated. Largely thanks to the Bosman ruling and lucrative offerings of football in Italy, Spain, and England’s blossoming Premier League, by 1998 only substitute goalkeeper Fred Grim remained from van Gaal’s squad.

That same year, the Olympisch Stadion was stripped of it’s ugly 1937 football-sponsored extension, and lovingly restored to its original 1927 design. Regrettably for Ajax, anything regarding full restoration to their brilliant best appears little more than a pipe dream.

Ruud Gullit and Frank Rijkaard. Image via.

Monday, August 29, 2016

The Brothers Milito

(This piece was first published on These Football Times on August 26th, 2016).

In May 2016, the final round of Argentine Primera División fixtures heralded the retirement of thirty-six year old Diego Milito. A short distance across Buenos Aires, Gabriel Milito, Diego’s younger brother by fourteen months, was appointed as manager of Club Atlético Independiente. Momentarily, one of football’s most intriguing sibling pairs were back where it all began.

Despite laying claim to a collective 21 major trophies, Diego and Gabriel spent most of their careers josling, hustling, and dancing in the shadows. Snubbed and championed by some of footballs best coaches, they claimed just 65 international caps between them.

The Champions League final of 2010 is widely remembered as Jose Mourinho’s. Yet as Mourinho breathed in the significance of his Milanese masterpiece, it was one Diego Milito who had tirelessly fizzed around an already impressive canvas, splashing subtle yet defining moments of genius all over it.

One balmy night at the Santiago Bernabéo as the final chapter of Inter’s perfect storm. A managerial mastermind achieving the unthinkable. A career-defining treble accomplished with an aging squad of street-wise artists and vagabonds. Diego shone.

In the semi-final, Inter’s monumental defeat of Barcelona had plenty of dramatic subplots and more than a lingering essence of film noir about it. However, one of the more wholesome stories of the second-leg was the Milito brothers reuniting in sporting rivalry.

For Diego, the three weeks prior to being a Champions League final match winner encompassed the defining moments of his career. Having scored in the first-leg to give Inter the initiative, he netted the only goal of the Coppa Italia final, and scored in a tricky 1-0 win away to Siena. The latter a result which confirmed the scudetto.

For Gabriel, the weeks, months, and indeed years leading up to the April 28th 2010 semi-final were equally heroic, if less spectacular. Having severely damaged a cruciate knee ligament two years earlier, Gabriel had only recently returned to action and fitness. An unused substitute in the first-leg, the definitive return leg saw Gabriel and Diego in their respective starting eleven.

Regrettably Gabriel lasted only the first-half, but for 45 minutes the two brothers wildly chased a place in Europe’s showpiece football final. 

*   *   *   *

Firmly in the shadow of Argentina’s Superclásico sits the Avellaneda Derby. In terms of historical significance and following, the tumultuous clash between Boca Juniors and River Plate dwarfs most footballing fixtures in the city. However, Buenos Aires’ ‘second-derby’ can stoke an equally impressive flame.

From 1999 till 2003, Diego and Gabriel Milito made the Avellaneda derby a family affair.

Signed as a scrawny 20 year-old and nicknamed El Princípe for his uncanny resemblance to Uruguayan legend, Enzo Francescoli, Diego spent his formative years spearheading the Racing attack. Across town and in the colours of rivals Club Atlético Independiente, Gabriel was an established and accomplished central defender, and was made club captain at 22 years of age.

Enthusiastically throwing brotherly love out the proverbial window, the first Avellaneda Derby to pit the brothers against one another saw Diego sent-off. Altercations followed some expert teasing and taunting from his sibling. The second derby saw Milito’s parents and respective girlfriends take an early exit, unable to watch their loved ones battling on the pitch, taunting and kicking lumps out of each other.

Despite evidencing a fierce rivalry on the field, the Milito brothers have always remained close away from football. Both switched South America for Europe in 2003, and have since lined up as both momentarily loathed adversaries and cherished teammates.

In the July of 2003, Real Madrid became the first big club to cast a dismissive eye at the Milito brothers. Behind the scenes of David Beckham’s unveiling, a one-day festival of keepy-uppys, photographs, and pony-tails, Gabriel came tantalisingly close to being Madrid's second summer signing.

Concerns regarding recovery to a recent knee injury hampered a dream move, and to somewhat perversely credit their judgement, Marid were on to something.

Undeterred, and wildly happy with what looked a bargain, Real Zaragoza swooped to sign the defender. Settling quickly and asserting an assured sense of confidence and ability, Gabriel was club captain by the time his older brother made his way to Europe.

Despite speculation to the contrary, the siblings weren’t to be teammates just yet.

Weeks turned to months and Diego remained in Argentina, starting the 2003/04 season with Racing. As more European clubs passed up the chance of Diego’s signature, unlikely suitors emerged.

Having narrowly avoided relegation to Serie C1 during the previous season, Genoa represented something of a less obvious choice for Diego. However, one of Serie B’s bigger fish who were slowly priming themselves for a top flight return, held the undeniable advantage of allowing a foreigner time to settle away from the limelight.

Ultimately though, Diego didn’t need time. Throughout a season and a half on the Ligurian coast, he netted 33 goals in 59 appearances, and crowned the 2004/05 campaign with 2 goals in a tumultuous 3-2 win at home to Venezia. The victory confirmed a Serie B title, promotion, and the end of a full decade away from Serie A.

Or so they thought. Not long after celebrations fizzled out, and the deliriously contented hangover washed across northern Italy’s port city, that ecstasy gave way to bewilderment and fury.

Strong allegations of match-fixing were thrown at executives and players of both clubs. The murky waters of Italian football of the era were clouded further. Counter allegations directed at the authorities and investigators centred around the illegal obtaining of evidence. Venezia, whose relegation had already been confirmed, were accused of contractual fraud, and accepting illegal payment in return for not doing too much to stand in the way of a Genoa win.

A hasty and often volatile investigation, verdict, and appeal occupied headlines throughout June and July 2005. By the time Genoa were sentenced to 22nd place in Serie B, and therefore relegation to Serie C1, Diego Milito, far from any direct accusations on a personal level, was on his way to Real Zaragoza.

It was a two-year loan deal which made the Milito brothers teammates for the second time in their careers. Their bond meant good things for Zaragoza. Diego finished as the club's top-scorer in his debut season, including a four-goal haul in the 2006 Copa del Rey semi-final against Real Madrid. Zaragoza were ultimately beaten by Espanyol in the final.

Diego bettered his goal tally in 2006/07, finishing just 2 behind the La Liga’s top scorer, Ruud van Nistelrooy. Zaragoza made his loan deal a permanent one, and steady progress was the order of the day. However, it was Gabriel who won most plaudits for his assured defensive displays.

Knowing a thing or two about assured defensive displays, Frank Rijkaard splashed €20 million and made Gabriel Milito a Barcelona player in July 2007.

The following campaign marked a period of change for the Catalan club. Lilian Thuram, Gianluca Zambrotta, and Ronaldinho would all play their last games for the club. Deco and Samuel Eto’o would soon be turfed out. 12 months later, Rijkaard himself wouldn’t be in the dugout. Revitalisation and revolution was afoot.

Despite shockwaves of change, and an unthinkable absence of silverware come the seasons end, Milito was an assured regular in the team. Bojan Krkić and Lionel Messi emerged and came to prominence, and despite finishing 18 points behind Real Madrid, Barca reached the Champions League semi-finals.

Across the two-legs in April 2008, Manchester United emerged victorious and booked an all-English final in the process. For Gabriel Milito, though, the decisive match at Old Trafford took on a whole new and personal level of heartbreak. Physical and emotional pain in the form of a career-threatening knee injury.

By the time Rijkaard had vacated the Camp Nou, and Pep Guardiola set about confirming Barcelona as modern football’s trailblazing success story, Milito was sidelined by a cruciate ligament injury.

Sitting out Pep’s total revolution was suffering enough, but Gabriel was an athletic defender in the prime of his years. He was more than comfortable with the ball at his feet, and widely tipped to become an integral part of the new coach's plans. In tribute to Gabriel, Guardiola stated as much on several occasions.

An anticipated year-long recovery was hampered by heart-wrenching setbacks (note the plural), and eventually saw Milito return after nearly 602 days of enforced absence.

Pep and Barcelona had won the treble in the meantime.

In football, evidently, much can happen in two years. By the time Gabriel returned to competitive action, January 5th 2010 and a La Liga match against Sevilla, Diego’s career trajectory had been upturned twice, and set to the path of legendary status.

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Having taken over the Real Zaragoza captaincy following Gabriel’s big move, Diego signed a contract extension which included a rumoured €100 million buy-out clause. Zaragoza’s elevated value of their captain, though, wasn’t exactly mirrored by heights of success scaled on the pitch. The top six finish of 2007 was followed by relegation on the last day of the 2007/08 season.

Inevitably, the Milito-Zaragoza love affair was over. Consistently one for quietly though firmly wearing his heart on his sleeve, Diego rejected several more lucrative offers from all over Europe, and returned to Italy. Specifically, he returned to Genoa.

By now back in the promised land of Serie A, the deal deal represented something of a coup for Genoa, who concluded the deal with minutes of the transfer deadline remaining. Having achieved mid-table security the season prior, Diego hit 24 goals to propel Genoa to a top 5 finish in 2008/09. Only a certain Zlatan Ibrahimović bettered that strike rate.

Ibrahimović’s gluttony in front of goal had shot Jose Mourinho’s Inter to the scudetto, and caught the eye of Barcelona in the process. As Ibrahimović made his way to the Camp Nou, Inter and Mourinho received €46 million plus the services of Samuel Eto’o.

With that windfall, and in what has to be one of football’s most fruitful and inspired spending sprees, Inter claimed the signatures of Brazilian defender Lucio, Thiago Motta, Wesley Sneijder, and one Diego Milito. In just a few short months, those players became the spine of a team who would claim unparalleled success, both domestically and in Europe.

All in all, el princípe registered 30 goals in 52 appearances throughout a ruthless debut campaign. Diego’s two goals in the final confirmed an unprecedented treble for Inter Milan, and epitomised his unique brand of attacking artistry.

In bearing witness to Diego Milito on a football pitch, one wasn’t watching Lionel Messi in full flow, or the raw and instinctive qualities of Carlos Tevez. Instead, Diego possessed an arsonry of more subtle talents. Then married them with the ability to momentarily burst into an impersonation of Messi or Tevez. His was a suspicious ability to sit on the periphery of a football match, waiting, cunning, and prodding for the moment of opportunity.  

The Champions League final of 2010 was undoubtedly the biggest match of either of the Milito brothers’ respective careers. Having been left behind at the semi-final stage, Gabriel would have been delighted to see his older brother grab the opportunity with both hands.

Spearheading a superbly organised Inter team, and bringing the curtain down on the perfect season, Diego Milito was the counter attack.

Route one could suitably describe Inter’s and Milito’s opening goal in the 35th minute. On the end of a lengthy Júlio César clearance, Milito showed strength, intelligent positioning, and a deft first touch to cushion a header into the feet of Wesley Sneijder. Two and a half seconds passed as Sneijder controlled the ball, set his feet, and nudged a return pass. In that same time frame, Milito had burst passed his countryman, Martín Demichelis, and set himself to strike. His first touch both cocooned and directed the ball, a feint threw defenders into confused states of, somewhere between slow-motion and statue reflex, and Milito’s second touch lifted the ball above the oncoming Hans-Jӧrg Butt with powerful precision.

With Demichelis and Daniel van Buyten being quietly yet continually tormented by Milito, it was the Belgian’s turn to be fully embarrassed in the 70th minute. Milito and Inter’s second and decisive goal of the evening was about individual invention and application. Collecting a pass in the inside left channel, Milito feinted, jinked, twisted and slalomed his way into the area. Deft changes in pace and a textbook drop of the shoulder placed van Buyten on his backside, and created the opening. With an assassin's eye, Milito opened his body, and powerfully placed the ball in the bottom right corner.

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Reuniting with one’s first professional club, rekindling that special alliance, is often regarded as the mark of an unassumingly down to earth footballer. Both the Milito brothers did exactly that.

After making just 10 appearances for Barcelona during the 2010/11 season, Gabriel was first to return to Argentina. Club Atlético Independiente welcomed home their favourite captain in the summer of 2011. Inevitably though, Gabriel succumbed to injuries, and the boots were hung up after a solitary season.

Upon returning to Milan after the heady summer of 2010, Diego put pen to paper on a four year contract extension. He remained an Inter player for three of those, playing under six different coaches. Despite equalling his best ever goals tally in 2011/12, injuries and the struggle for continuity and rhythm under so many managers proved significant hurdles.

Following two heavily disrupted seasons, which included a cruel twist of fate in the form of a cruciate injury, Diego, too was heading home.

Back in the colours of Racing, Diego helped his hometown club to the 2014 Transición Championship, thus securing a place in the 2015 Copa Libertadores. By the time Diego formally bowed out, Gabriel had established himself as a highly promising coach. He managed Estudiantes de la Plata to an impressive season before taking the reins at Independiente.

As ever, despite being the elder sibling, Diego ultimately followed in Gabriel’s footsteps. Where Gabriel went with a sure-footed and assured realism, riding and not rueing bouts of bad fortune, Diego managed to hustle his way to loftier career crescendos, and something of a fairytale ending.

Despite wanting to, and indeed actually kicking lumps out of each other, taunting and scraping on the pitch like children in the back yard, there is a bond between Diego and Gabriel which extends that of brotherhood. The two Milito’s will always be teammates, rivals, and brothers.