For the past several weeks, pretty much all of the press Inter has received has orbited around the impending retirement of Javier Zanetti. And well it should. But Pupi isn't the only 1970s-born Argentine hero set to leave Milano. With his contract expiring this summer, and no reported plans to renew it, Diego Milito will almost surely be making his final exit when the season wraps up. Whether he hangs up his boots right away or takes a victory lap back home in South America, the soon-to-be 35-year-old deserves a final tip of the hat for his five tours of Inter duty.
Diego Milito was a truly world-class striker for the better part of a decade. This shouldn't be a controversial statement, but now that his eventful time at Inter is coming to an end, I find it surprisingly necessary to stress this fact: Diego Milito was a world-class striker.
Over the course of his professional career, Diego Milito notched six separate seasons in which he averaged more than a goal for every two matches played, and six seasons in which he tallied more than 20 goals. Four different times in his career, he was the second-highest goal scorer in his league. (Runner-up to the formidable likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Antonio Di Natale and Ruud van Nistelrooy.)
All told, Milito has scored 235 club goals. That's more than the career totals of George Weah, Kaka, Luis Figo, Wayne Rooney, Robin Van Persie, Fernando Torres and Carlos Tevez, just to name a few.
He's a quintessential big-match player too, having scored a hat-trick against Milan, a brace against Bayern Munich, a brace against Juventus, the winning goal against Barcelona in a CL semifinal, the first goal against Chelsea in the CL round of 16, and even a poker against Real Madrid (back when he was with Zaragoza). During one extraordinary four-match stretch in May of 2010, he scored five goals which between them won Inter the league title, the league cup, and the Champions League title.
Like I said, a world-class striker.
In spite of this, Milito spent the first half of his career in near-obscurity, and the second half of it beset by nearly constant criticism and doubt. I'm often surprised by how many Inter fans have been itching to sell him since the moment the Champions League trophy was engraved, and how many commentators seem to disregard him as a one-season wonder or a simple tap-in poacher. (Not only is this wildly incorrect*, but it shows incredible ignorance to imply that always being in the right place at the right time and keeping your nerve in front of goal are somehow easy skills to master.) He has been declared "past it" more than any footballer I can think of, and it doesn't seem to matter how many times he's proven the doubters wrong**.
For example, back in summer of 2009, his arrival at Inter from Genoa was greeted by these glowing words from Goal.com:
"If the Genoa hit man is being billed as the final piece of Inter's forward line, then their limitations will only lead to further embarrassment on the European stage and failure on the part of Jose Mourinho to deliver in what has been expected of him."
Of course, what followed was exactly the opposite of that prediction, with Milito having his most legendary season and winning UEFA's Club Player of the Year award.
For another example, fast-forward to fall of 2011, when he was named bidone d'oro, or worst player in Serie A, beating out competition from true garbage-men like Milos Krasic and Amauri. That season, he responded by going on an explosive goal-scoring tear to finish second on the Serie A scoring chart, even recording the first four-goal match for an Inter player in a decade.
No, Diego Milito will never receive the credit he deserves, and while this irks me to no end, it's probably inevitable. And in many ways, it's part of why I like him so much.
A lot of this perpetual underestimation is surely due to Milito's incredibly low-key demeanor. He just doesn't act like a hot-sh*t striker.
Ask anyone he's played with to talk about him, and they'll invariably mention how quiet and bookish he is. (As a teenager, he took two years of college economics classes just in case football didn't work out.) On the physical side, he's never looked particularly athletic, jogging along with a loping stride that belies his occasional flashes of deadly speed. His ball-control and dribbling skills are the subtle, purely functional kinds that rarely show up on highlight reels. He rarely takes more touches than he needs, and rarely shows off. There is no signature Diego Milito goal. No one has ever said "that was a vintage Milito move" when referring to anyone other than Milito, and maybe not even then.
Hell, even his nickname, "Il Principe," is strangely impersonal, based not on any of his own individual attributes or accomplishments, but rather his superficial physical resemblance to a completely unrelated player who also had that nickname.
I was thinking about Milito a few months ago when I first encountered an article about what psychologists call "imposter syndrome." It's a strange sort of mental affliction that affects high-achieving individuals, who are somehow tormented by the fear that they'll be outed as frauds, and that all their great accomplishments were accidental, the results of simple luck or good timing. For people who suffer from this, it tends to manifest itself in constant crises of conscience, in attempts to downplay one's successes, and in a reluctance to do things that set one apart from the pack.
I don't want to psychoanalyze Milito from my couch, but it's hard not to see elements of this in the way he carries himself. You see it in the way he approached his career in his 20s, plying his trade at lower-table teams and only leaving when he absolutely had to. At one point, he had a €100 million buyout clause in his contract with Real Zaragoza, with several big clubs interested in him, yet it took the team's relegation before he finally consented to a move: a quiet €13 million transfer back to Genoa, whom he had only left in the first place thanks to their relegation.
(His move to Inter was really the first and only time Milito seemed to make a play for the big stage. And you almost sense he would have been perfectly happy to continue being the forgotten marksman plugging away at Genoa if Mourinho hadn't convinced him he could do better.)
You can also see this in his eyes when he messes up. Look at his reaction after missing his penalty against Atletico in the European Supercup, or the way he just collapses into the netting after missing a sitter against Cagliari***. When most strikers strike-out like this, they get angry, they mutter curses to themselves, they pound the pitch, they put their hands on their hips and shake their heads. But Milito looks like he literally wants to crawl into a hole and die. He looks like he never wants to play football again. No matter how hard most players take disappointment, Milito seems to take it even harder.
This is precisely what I love about him.
Much like lead singers in hair-metal bands, Hollywood actresses, and politicians, the position of striker tends to attract an outsized number of ragingly narcissistic, egomaniacal a**holes. This isn't even intended as an insult, really - it's just the nature of the job.
If you're the type of person who demands attention, craves messianic adulation from large crowds, and always wants to be at the very top of an 11-person human pyramid, it's the position for you. It takes a lot of arrogance to look at a gang of defenders and think, "I could totally dribble past them." It takes an almost pathological level of self-involvement to stand around idly waiting for a pass, and to then risk wasting all the hard work your teammates put into getting you the ball by taking a low-percentage shot from distance. If you're a modest, self-effacing kind of guy who questions himself a lot, you'd probably be more comfortable as a holding midfielder. Or a water boy.
Perhaps nowhere is this more obvious than in star strikers' trademarked goal celebrations. Whether displays of physical strength (Balotelli's shirtless muscleman stance, or Cristiano Ronaldo's "check out my quads, bro" leg flex), cocky stances of ironic disdain (Cantona and Ibra's little smirks that seemed to say, "Oh, did I score there? I wasn't paying attention"), sanctimonious allusions to divine favor (Messi's point toward the heavens) or outright invocations of militaristic might (Batistuta's machine gun salute, Robbie Keane's gunslinger act) goal celebrations tend to imply the striker's omnipotence, his unvarnished certainty that a goal was coming and he was destined to score it.
In contrast, Milito never had a standard goal celebration, and you'd rarely see anyone celebrate with such unrestrained emotion. Sometimes he'd run screaming to the fan sections with fists pumping crazily, sometimes he'd all but double over with gratitude, sometimes he'd do this weird sort of jazz-hands shuffle, and sometimes he'd simply collapse on his back, exhausted. In every case, he seemed genuinely overwhelmed and thankful to have scored - his celebrations were expressions of a man who knows that form is fickle, that luck can turn against you, and that it pays to celebrate when you can.
Quiet, modest, professional and strangely delicate, Diego Milito was never a predestinato, marked early on for big things. You had to wonder if he even would have preferred to be a striker at all if he hadn't been so damn good at it. But he was damn good at it, and he somehow played an arrogant man's position without a hint of arrogance, never hiding how badly he wanted to score, how hard he was willing to work for it, and how genuinely relieved he was to make it happen. Looking on as Milito tore apart the best defenses in the world was like seeing the shy wallflower walk right up to the prom queen and ask her to dance.
In other words, when you watched Milito score, you were watching the nice guy finish first. And we were once lucky enough to get to see the nice guy finish first 20 or 30 times per season.
*Milito has scored plenty of tap-in goals off of low crosses. But he's also scored plenty of headers, and bullet-point penalties, and inch-perfect angled drives, and skidding ground balls from way outside the box, and majestic floating chips that seem to drift into the net in slow-motion, and balletic half-volleys, and explosive bursts into the final third with Daniele Bonera chasing after him while crying hysterically, and...
**It is true that Milito has had his ups and downs with us, going from a 30 goal season to an 8 goal season and back to a 26 goal season in a three-year span. This is largely due to injury issues, however, which are to be expected when you sign a 30-year-old.