x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

No shadows for Diego

Marcotti's man Inter's Argentine striker no longer competes with his more gifted brother Gabi Milito.

Diego Milito is one of Serie A's best strikers.
Diego Milito is one of Serie A's best strikers.

Few things guarantee humility more than growing up in the shadow of a sibling. A younger sibling, at that. The Milito boys were known as gifted footballers growing up in Avalleneda, in the far suburbs of Buenos Aires, but it was not Diego who was tipped for greatness, it was his kid brother, Gabi. Fifteen months younger (and seven centimetres taller), Gabi stood out with his size, athleticism and poise. He looked like a natural. Not like his scrappy older brother, Diego. Which is why, when both had trials at Independiente, the club they supported, it was Gabi, the defender, who was signed. Diego ended up at cross-town rivals Racing. It also explains why Gabi, the younger brother, won his first Argentina cap a full three years before Diego did.

He seemed destined to a career in the shadows. Even when Racing won the Argentine title in 2001, he was a bit player, scoring just two goals and frequently coming off the bench. The fans loved his dedication and he became something of a cult hero, but that looked to be as far as it was going to go. Yet he was desperate to move to Europe, just as his brother had done six months earlier and, in January of 2004, he got his wish albeit in the second flight, joining a struggling Genoa side.

It was love at first sight. He scored 12 goals in half a season (joining the club in the relegation zone and propelling them to mid- table) and then followed up with 21 the following year, as Genoa rose to second in the table. But then, disaster struck. It emerged that club president Enrico Preziosi had paid a large sum of cash to a middle man who then passed it on to players of Venezia, Genoa's opponents on the final day of the campaign.

Venezia were dead last and mathematically relegated and the match was in Genoa. To this day it seems a bizarre game to fix. But the evidence was overwhelming. Promotion was struck off and the club were relegated to Serie C. Diego, who had just signed a new contract, vowed that he would return when they were back to Serie A. He moved to Zaragoza where he had the privilege of playing with his brother. Except he was no longer in the shadows. In a few weeks he established himself as one of the most dead-eye strikers in Primera Liga.

More than anything, what set the older brother apart was the uncanny ability to read the play two or three touches ahead. He seemingly just knew where the ball was going to go, a footballing clairvoyance of sorts which allowed him to become the club's top goalscorer in his first season and the third best goalscorer in all of Europe (behind Ruud van Nistelrooy and Francesco Totti) in his second campaign.

That summer, Gabi moved on, to Barcelona and Diego was given the captaincy, much to the fans' delight. The following year, 2007-08, was a heartbreaker. Zaragoza were relegated, despite his 15 league goals. The club told him they had to sell him, offers came in from the likes of Seville, Atletico Madrid, Bayern and Juventus. But Diego also received a call from Genoa and his old president, Preziosi. "We're trying to sell [Marco] Borriello to Milan. If we do, we'll have the funds to buy you back. We understand if you go elsewhere, but, bear in mind, as soon as we get the money in, we'll bid for you too," Preziosi told him.

Diego held out, turning down all offers until deadline day, when the call from Genoa finally came. There really was not much to think about. He wanted to return home. Buoyed by his 24 Serie A goals, Genoa qualified for the Uefa Cup and he established himself as one of the best goalscorers in Italy. Three years after leading Genoa back to Serie A (only to have it struck off by Preziosi's mis-deeds), he was back there and finally tasting Italy's top flight.

But this is football, not Hollywood. And, by the end of the season, it was clear that Diego was just too good for Genoa. Inter made the club an offer neither he nor Preziosi could refuse and he moved to the San Siro to join forces with Jose Mourinho. He cried when he said goodbye to the fans, but they understood. With a World Cup on the horizon, Inter was the place to be. Now his goals are different: the Champions League crown and then, South Africa (for the World Cup). He is not just competing for himself but, ironically, for Gabi too, who, following an horrific knee injury, has been sidelined for nearly 18 months.

No more shadows for him. Gabriele Marcotti is an expert in world football and lives in London. gmarcotti@thenational.ae