On 1 January 2004 Genoa, a bottom-half team in Italy’s Serie B, signed 23-year-old Argentinian forward Diego Milito from Racing Club. Unknown to him, Inter Milan, his eventual destination, were struggling at the time. Inter had splurged big in the summer, but manager Héctor Cúper had failed to bring the required results and was replaced by Alberto Zaccheroni in October 2003.
It would be six more years until the destiny of Inter and Milito would converge, and both would play a crucial role in creating each other’s legacy. For Inter, it would be nothing less than a fairy-tale, as they became the first Italian club to win the treble. Milito would prove to be the unlikely prince in this legend.
For two seasons El Principe spearheaded Genoa’s attacking lineup scoring 33 goals in 59 appearances, a not-so-meagre rate of 0.55 goals per game. His vision, intensity, and ability to sniff opportunities in the final third made him Genoa’s most prized possession during this time.
I Rossoblu won the Serie B title in 2004/05 but were anti-climactically relegated to the third tier due to allegations that they had fixed the last match of the season with Venezia. They had won the match 3-2 and would have gone on to compete in Serie A but, as luck would have it, Milito would have to wait for his time in the Italian top tier.
Milito’s agents made a case for his performance and he ultimately transferred out to Real Zaragoza on an initial two-year loan deal. During his eventual three-year stint in Spain, Diego would reunite with his erstwhile rival and brother, Gabriel Milito. During their days in the Argentinian top tier, the brothers played opposite each other for Avellaneda rivals Racing and Independiente. Supposedly, one derby encounter went too far for their families and girlfriends to watch, and they left the stadium in the middle of the match. Referees and players were seen holding back the pair as sibling rivalry boiled over.
However, that was in the past. Now, the brothers reunited to create one of Zaragoza’s best spell of recent times. Gabriel had already been handed the captains’ armband and marshalled the defence, whilst Diego arrived with a reputation for being in the right place and at the right time at the other end of the pitch.
During the Milito family reunion, Inter were going through a renaissance of sorts: the revolution before the actual revolution. Roberto Mancini was brought in at the onset of the 2004/05 season and improved Inter’s league position as the Nerazzurri finished third.
While their Champions League campaign came to a halt at the quarter-final stage with a 0-5 aggregate loss to arch-rivals A.C. Milan, Mancini’s team managed to win the Coppa Italia. Brazilian magician Adriano’s 28 goals during the season helped Inter slowly inch towards regaining the Serie A crown they had last won in 1989.
The next season turned out to be one of the best campaigns for the club in a while as they completed a domestic double of Serie A and Coppa Italia titles. However, they once again bowed out of the Champions League in the quarter-final stage, the European competition jinx intact. At this point, their squad comprised of icons like Luis Figo, Javier Zanetti, Marco Materazzi, Esteban Cambiasso and young upstarts like Adriano and Leonardo Bonucci.
Across the continent, Real Zaragoza were also having one of their better seasons. They finished 11th in the La Liga and runners-up in the Copa del Rey, losing out to Espanyol in the final after defeating Real Madrid 6-1 in the semis. Once again, the man behind the journey was Diego Milito, his 21 goal haul proving significant for Los Maños.
In the subsequent season, Milito bettered his personal performance and so did Zaragoza. They finished sixth in the league but bowed out of the Copa del Rey in the quarter-finals. Milito’s 23-goal haul was only two short of the ultimate Pichichi winner Ruud van Nistelrooy.
Keeping in line with his reputation, his 53 goals from 108 appearances once again brought to light the incredible consistency the South American delivered. However, despite his best efforts the following season Zaragoza finished 18th. Upon news of the relegation, Milito sought to find a new club.
Despite numerous lucrative offers from top clubs, Milito returned to Genoa. “For me, revisiting Genoa is something beautiful, and returning to Marassi is really a great joy,” Milito stated in a 2016 interview. “I just want to say that I’ve never forgotten about Genoa or their fans. I’ll always be bound to these colours, which have always treated me very well.”
While his performances on the pitch were certainly turning heads, it goes on to show what kind of a man Milito really was. His character – as well as his goal-scoring tendencies – explain José Mourinho decided to sign a 30-year-old striker.
His second spell in Genoa would serve as the launching pad to create his legacy. He scored 24 goals in just 31 appearances and finished just one goal behind eventual Capocannonieri winner Zlatan Ibrahimovic. It’s ironic that the following season Milito would ultimately replace Ibrahimovic as the Swede moved to Barcelona.
On 20 May 2009, José Mourinho signed Milito for Inter along with Thiago Motta, both proving crucial in creating the fairy-tale season for Inter. He quickly adapted to his new surroundings and got off to a great start with a brace against A.C. Milan in a pre-season tournament. He assisted two goals in the Derby Della Madonnina and even scored a penalty kick, his first league goal for the Nerazzurri.
The consistency, vision and striker’s instinct that made Mourinho splurge on him were retained throughout his debut season and he instantly became a fan favourite. His humility and off-the-field persona continued to endear him to fans and teammates alike. It’s not every day that you get to see a 30-plus striker putting in warrior-like shifts in every match and always being there for the team, no matter the occasion.
One of the key facets of Milito, which made him such an enticing enigma, especially when compared to bigger stars such as Ibrahimovic, Nistelrooy, Thierry Henry and Samuel Eto’o, was his ability to deliver in times of need. A key characteristic of being a great player is putting in the shift and delivering when your team is down and when you’re playing in adverse circumstances. Aside from the homage paid by ‘hardcore’ football geeks, there’s hardly any resonance of his legacy, at least in parity with the aforementioned names.
Milito’s late equaliser in the Champions League group stage win over Dynamo Kiev was one such moment. Inter needed the three points and, finding themselves a goal behind, equalised through El Principe. Minutes later the comeback was complete as Wesley Sneijder scored the winning goal that ultimately saw Inter through to the next stage.
Similarly, in the semi-final against Barcelona, the Argentine scored an important goal, while providing for his team twice, as they routed the Blaugrana 3-1. There were numerous other instances – against Milan, Udinese, Livorno, Fiorentina, and Chelsea – Milito provided important goals in the hour of need.
After beating Barcelona 3-2 on aggregate, Inter fixed their final date with Bayern Munich. Milito had already helped Inter to the Coppa Italia – after defeating Roma – and the club’s 18th Scudetto. Finally, on the day destiny heralded, Milito rose once again scoring two eternally beautiful goals at the Santiago Bernabeú.
The first came as Sneijder picked up the header from Milito to lay off for him. El Principe calmly raced past the defenders before firing it past the ‘keeper. The second one, which saw Milito twist-and-turn inside the box, beating the defenders and finally slotting it to the far-side side-netting.
Milito’s genius should not be celebrated because he scored a lot of goals, or because he won the major honours. He should be celebrated because he was one of the most consistent performers on the European stage. His legacy isn’t the Champions League, or Serie A’s Footballer of the Year, or being in the FiFPro Team of the Year, but because he was one of the most dependable players in the squad, irrespective of the colours he wore.
Despite his success, Milito had an unlikely gait, lacked certain physical attributes, and didn’t show any flamboyant trickery. Yet he proved to be Inter’s true knight in shining armour, and their unlikely Prince.