Welcome to Last Word on Footballs’ Returning Players series. In this edition, we take a look at striker Diego Milito.
After making his professional debut at the age of 20 for Argentine outfit Racing Club, Milito became a prolific goalscorer in Europe. From 2003 to 2014, Milito scored 196 goals across competitions for Genoa, Real Zaragoza and Inter Milan, where he played a leading role in their renowned treble.
After the 2013/14 Serie A season with Inter, El Príncipe returned to Racing Club and participated in three more campaigns before retiring and moving into a technical role.
Returning Players – Diego Milito
First Spell at Racing Club
“From the beginning of his career, he stood out from the rest and the raised heads,” Racing Club said of Milito, who first joined their youth team at the age of 10.
Over the next decade with the youth set up, Milito would help propel the team from the lowly ninth division to the fourth division, which he won at the end of the 1999 season.
His notable performances impressed at the senior level and on December 11, 1999, Milito made his first-team debut, coming off the bench in the 77th minute in a 3-3 draw against Unión.
While Milito stood out for his ability on the ball, he struggled to find the back of the net at the beginning of his Racing career, scoring just three goals in his first 46 matches.
“It’s hard for me to score goals,” Milito told fanzine La Comu de Racing. “I don’t consider myself a scorer, nor am I obsessed with it, but I have to score more. Sometimes I rush at the last touch.”
However, Milito found his form in the 2001/02 campaign and scored nine goals in 38 matches. While his returns were far from prolific, Milito scored three key goals that helped deliver Racing their first title in 35 years: a double against Newell’s Old Boys and match-winner against Colón.
“I’m going to need some time to realise what I am living through,” Milito told La Comu de Racing. “I always wondered if I would be able to step onto the grass of El Cilindro [the nickname for Racing’s home stadium]. Today I not only fulfilled a dream, but I also turned around [my performances].”
After the 2001/02 season, Milito perfected his final touch and the goals began to pour in. Over the subsequent two campaigns, he scored 25 goals in 64 games and soon attracted interest from abroad.
Teams That Diego Milito Played for in Between
In January 2004, Milito made an €8 million (£5.6 million) move to Italian second division side Genoa, where he quickly became a cult hero.
“[He was] the key man in the revival that Genoa has had since January when it seemed hopelessly doomed to decline,” Genoese newspaper Il Secolo XIX reported in April 2004. “He has proven to be a leader who would have led the team well to the top, to fight for promotion to Serie A.”
In 62 matches, Milito scored 34 goals and earned his first call up to the Argentina national team with his impressive performances with Il Grifone.
Milito went on to score four goals in 25 caps with the La Albiceleste, including a late goal against Colombia in the 2007 Copa America, but never managed to cement his place in the national team.
Back in Italy, Milito was on pace to take Genoa up to Serie A, but the club’s bankruptcy at the end of the season meant they were relegated to Serie C1 with a league-leading 76 points.
Instead, Milito was loaned out to the Spanish side, Real Zaragoza. In just three seasons with the club, Milito scored 61 goals in 125 games across competitions and continued to prove his reputation as a big-game player.
On a chilly February night in the Copa del Rey semi-finals against Galactico-laden Real Madrid, Milito scored four goals in a 6-1 rout of Los Blancos.
The following season, Milito scored 23 league goals, finishing just two behind Ruud van Nistelrooy for top scorer in Spain and three behind Francesco Totti as top scorer in Europe.
Ahead of the 2007/08 campaign, Milito joined Real Zaragoza permanently, but the move was short-lived. After just one season, Real Zaragoza were relegated and Milito returned to Genoa.
Short Return to Genoa and Move to Inter
After a sensational start to his European career in Italy, Milito now had the chance to prove his mettle in Serie A. In his first and only season back with Genoa, Milito impressed, scoring 26 goals in 32 games across the league and Coppa Italia.
His impressive performance, finishing as the second-highest scorer in Serie A behind Zlatan Ibrahimović, earned Milito a move to reigning champions Inter. In the heart of Milan, Milito would cement his European legacy.
Despite playing for his third team in as many years, Milito lost none of his momentum and played a central role in Inter Milan’s treble-winning campaign in the 2009/10 season.
He scored 24 goals in 31 Serie A matches, propelling Inter to 82 points and first place ahead of Roma. Milito showed manager José Mourinho that he could score in the big games too.
The Argentine scored in 21 different matches throughout the campaign, bagging three match-winning goals and two that salvaged a point for Inter. Of the 20 teams in Serie A, Milito hit the back of the net against 15 of them.
His brilliance extended to the Coppa Italia, too, in which he scored in the semi-final first leg against Fiorentina and bagged the only goal in the final against Roma.
However, Milito may be most fondly remembered in Milan for his incredible Champions League run that year. In 11 matches played, he scored six goals, including five in the knockout phase.
Undoubtedly, his most important were a 61st-minute goal against Barcelona in the first leg of the semi-finals. Inter won the tie 3-1 on the night and 3-2 on aggregate.
Three weeks later, he scored a brace again Bayern Munich in the finals, delivering Inter a 2-0 and their third European title.
“Vision, timing, flawless technique and sangfroid – these two goals had everything a great striker needs, plus a sense of lyricism in the fluency of his movement,” Guardian columnist Richard Williams wrote of Milito’s performance in the final.
“The 30-year-old Milito is hardly a fancy striker, not a Lionel Messi taking your breath away with a trick or a Carlos Tevez galvanising the stadium with elemental force, but his economy has been just as devastating this season,” he added.
However, Milito was unable to recapture the magic of that first season in Milan. A series of injuries saw him miss substantial portions of 2010/11, 2012/13 and 2013/14 campaigns. The one bright spot was the 2011/12 year, in which he managed to stay healthy and scored 24 goals in 33 games in Serie A.
Return to Racing Club
After the 2013/14 season, the now 35-year-old Milito decided he wanted to return to where it all started. Nagging injuries had put a damper on his last four seasons with Inter and led Milito to contemplate his future.
“I am returning to my home,” he said at his unveiling. “I will try to help the younger ones to grow.”
Milito spent three more years playing at Racing, scoring 21 goals in 59 matches. Timely goals and assists from Milito in the 2014 Argentine Primera División, including a few match-winners, helped Racing win their first league title since 2001.
At the end of the 2016 season, a teary-eyed Miltio stood in front of a capacity crowd at El Cilindro chanting his name and bid an emotional farewell.
“When I started playing football, I never but never imagined living a day like this,” Milito said. That’s why the first word that comes to mind is thank you.”
“I thank all the clubs I played with. Genoa took me to Europe, making me known to great football,” he added. “I lived unforgettable moments with Inter and received a lot of affection from the \Nerazzurri fans. On a day like this, I could never forget them.”