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. 

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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.