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  • Writer's pictureAlex Brotherton

Diego Milito: Prince Of Zaragoza

All kings start off as princes.

It was a cool February evening when the prince plotted his ascension. The invaders were skilled, experienced, amongst the most revered in the land, but they were no match for the prince. He was destined for greatness, after all. In the Kingdom of Aragón, a bloody battle ensued – if you could even call it a battle. With a display of ruthlessness, intensity and unity, Real Zaragoza put Real Madrid to the sword. Inspired by their leader, they showed no mercy in a 6-1 crushing. In the King’s Cup, Diego Milito, El Príncipe, had staked his claim to the throne.

In May 2010, Diego Milito first conquered Italy, and then he conquered Europe. At 30 years old El Príncipe, a nickname born out of his uncanny resemblance to Uruguay legend Enzo Francescoli, became a treble winner with Inter Milan. 30 goals in the 2009/10 campaign, including winners in the finals of the Champions League and Coppa Italia, as well a title-clinching strike on the last day of the Serie A season, crowned the Argentine striker as one of football’s best marksmen. To the casual observer, his was a rags-to-riches tale; a wildly successful first season at a European heavyweight after years spent in the wilderness. But ask any supporter of Real Zaragoza, and they’ll tell you that Milito’s coronation was inevitable. It was at La Romareda that he joined a club seeking a new direction, in need of fresh ideas and a weapon to help them kick on from mid-table safety. The results were spectacular.

Royalty is dictated by bloodline, so it was somewhat fitting that it was Diego Milito’s younger brother, Gabriel, that persuaded him to sign for Real Zaragoza in 2005. Diego had spent the previous two seasons playing for Genoa in Italy’s Serie B, his first club in Europe. He and his brother had left Argentinian sides Racing Club and Independiente respectively in the summer of 2003, but while Gabriel chose to immediately embrace the pressure and scrutiny of LaLiga, Diego opted to continue his development away from the spotlight. An instant success in Italy’s second division, his 33 league goals in 59 games turned Il Grifone from relegation candidates into promotion winners – or so everyone thought. After winning the title and therefore promotion to Serie A on the final day of the 2004/05 season, Genoa became embroiled in a match-fixing scandal, and were administratively relegated to Serie C1. Milito needed a new home, and his brother insisted that Zaragoza sign him.

“Gaby had been in Zaragoza for two seasons and was already El Mariscal (the Marshal) of the defence, an idol for the fans”, says Daniel Orte Ramírez, lifelong Real Zaragoza fan. “The fact that Gabriel felt so comfortable in the city, and in the club itself, made possible the childhood dream of the Milito brothers of joining the same club”. A 25-year-old Diego arrived in the capital of Aragón on a two-year loan deal, a replacement for Spanish prodigy David Villa who had been whisked away to Valencia on the back of a 15-goal season. He may have had big boots to fill, but it didn’t take long for the prince to become just as adored as the marshal.

Any doubts over Diego’s ability to adapt to top-level football evaporated when he scored his first three LaLiga goals in three consecutive early-season games. The first was the opener in a 3-1 win against Osasuna, the second in a draw with Deportivo La Coruña and the third a strike to put Zaragoza 2-0 up at Camp Nou, although Barcelona went on to rescue a point.

“Real Zaragoza has always been a hotbed of great forwards, the likes of Valdano, Rubén Sosa, Esnaider, Morientes, David Villa, and Diego was not going to be less”, says Daniel. Still, not even the most optimistic of supporters would have imagined that Los Maños, who, despite winning the Copa del Rey a year before, had only managed back-to-back 12th-placed finishes in LaLiga, would be able to secure the services of such an exceptional striker. Diego had scored goals in Genoa. Lots of them. But in Spain he was like a pitbull off its leash. “His style was fast, spectacular, straight to the opponent’s goal and absolutely lethal”, says Ortiz Remacha, journalist and long-time follower of the club. “He was a player of touch, of patience with the ball at his feet, but he liked to finish plays decisively. He had certainty in front of goal, he was a deadly predator”.

But what was most impressive about Diego Milito as a striker, a goalscorer, was not the number of shots he planted past helpless goalkeepers. His 53 goals in 108 LaLiga appearances gave him an impressive ratio of almost one goal every two games, but other top forwards have done similar. What was remarkable about Diego Milito was the range of goals he could score. Right foot, left foot, tap-ins, screamers, headers, penalties – he didn’t discriminate. He wasn’t just a six-yard box poacher or an aerial threat, a brutal burst-the-back-of-the-net finisher or a silky, fleet-footed ballerina. He was all of those and more. There are two games that come to mind when considering the variety of Milito’s game.

“In my 45 years as a journalist, it was the best game at La Romareda that I’ve reported from. It was a magical game, played from the heart, with only the idea of winning in a crowded and vibrant stadium that was on its feet for Real Zaragoza throughout”. Ortiz is, of course, talking about that famous night in February 2006. It was the first leg of the Copa del Rey semi-final, and Real Madrid were in town. Zaragoza had already dispatched Atlético de Madrid in the round of 16, before eliminating Barcelona in a thrilling two-legged quarter-final. Diego scored twice in a 4-2 win at home, and a 1-2 defeat in Barcelona a week later saw his side through on aggregate. But when Real Madrid rocked up, nobody thought lightning would strike a third time. Diego had other ideas.

The first goal was an exhibition of power, as Diego surrendered himself to his ruthless, animal-like instincts. Brazilian strike-partner Ewerthon robbed a careless Iván Helguera on the right wing and surged towards the penalty area. Instinct: Milito made the obvious run into the box, tracked by Sergio Ramos and Michel Salgado. Both were running back towards their own goal, both were ball-watching. Milito cut his run at the penalty spot, dropped a yard or two into space, and received the cut-back from Ewerthon. By the time the two defenders realised that they had lost their man, it was too late. Milito’s first touch set the ball up with a bounce, the second lashed it passed Iker Casillas into the roof of the net.

The second goal was an exhibition of guile, composure and ingenuity. Milito darted in between Helguera and Ramos to receive a throw-in on the right-hand side, and was instantly through on goal. Again, he took two touches. The first was a faint chop inside, a simple but devastating manoeuvre that sent Ramos flying past like a cartoon character helplessly sliding towards a cliff edge. It set up what looked to be a perfect opportunity to strike with his left foot, but instead he proceeded to poke the ball in at Casillas’ near post with the outside of his right. Watching the grainy match footage on YouTube, you can make out the expressions on the Galácticos’ faces. They’re dumbfounded. Casillas shakes his head in dismay, Júlio Baptista raises his arms in exasperation, Roberto Carlos is so taken aback he’s almost smiling. “Goals like that stay with you forever. I have them burned into my memory”, Milito told Diario AS years later.

The third and fourth were headers, ten minutes before and after half-time respectively. The Madrid defenders did a less than convincing job of marking him, but Milito still punished them with devastating accuracy.

Ewerthon added two more, and Zaragoza secured a scarcely believable win. "It was historic, with a direct style of football and without speculation, where Diego was crowned as the last great goal scorer of Real Zaragoza in Primera”, says Ortiz. “His four goals, all different in the way they were scored, were enough to place him on the altar".

The second game of note came the following season against another giant of Spanish football, FC Barcelona. The score locked at 0-0 as the hour mark of the late-season fixture approached, Zaragoza were looking to qualify for the UEFA Champions League for the first time in their history. It could find no way through the table-toppers from Catalonia, until Milito produced a moment of understated, gentle brilliance. As Andrés D’Alessandro swung a low cross towards the near post from the left, Barça goalkeeper Víctor Valdés dived forwards to meet it. Somehow, inexplicably, Milito, stood practically on the by-line with Carles Puyol breathing down his neck, got the faintest of touches with the top of his right boot to guide the ball under the stranded keeper. The ball trickled across the goal line, and La Romareda erupted. Ultimately, Los Blanquillos would have to settle for sixth place, but for a fleeting moment, their mercurial striker had propelled them to new heights.

On a personal level, 2006/07 was an extraordinary success for Milito. He notched 23 goals in LaLiga, only two fewer than Pichichi winner Ruud van Nistelrooy, and only three behind European Golden Boot winner Francesco Totti. When brother Gabby left for Barcelona in the summer, Diego was handed the captain’s armband and a new contract, with a reported €100 million release clause.

Of course, only a superficial analysis would suggest that Milito’s individual brilliance alone was responsible for his exploits in Zaragoza. In his debut season he quickly formed a potent partnership with Ewerthon, the striker nicknamed ‘the arrow’ by supporters due to his lightning speed. “They played without looking at each other, with absolute naturalness”, remembers Ortiz. “They enjoyed leading the attack, creating easy and offensive football”. Over three seasons in Zaragoza, Milito played alongside the likes of D’Alessandro, Pablo Aimar, Ricardo Oliveira and Gabi, all fantastic players in their own right. “You need to surround yourself with a great cast to be a champion,” says Daniel. His goals might not have brought any silverware to Zaragoza, but that isn’t the only measure of a champion.

The following season, despite Milito’s 15 league goals, Zaragoza struggled. The European voyage began and ended in the first round of the UEFA Cup, with elimination by Aris Thessaloniki. On the domestic front, a marked slump in form after Christmas saw only five wins in the second half of the season. When a win in Mallorca on the final day would have secured survival, a defeat confirmed relegation. With the loss in top-flight revenue and the financial restructuring that entails, Milito was sold back to Genoa, by now in Serie A, on the final day of the summer transfer window.

Two years later and Milito was lifting old big ears on the Santiago Bernabéu turf, having scored twice for Inter Milan in a 2-0 defeat of Bayern Munich in the 2010 Champions League Final. Supporters of Real Zaragoza, now back in LaLiga after one year in Segunda, would have taken some small, personal triumph from the occasion – after four defeats at the home of Real Madrid, three against Los Blancos and one in the 2006 Copa del Rey final to Espanyol, their adopted son had finally conquered the toughest of battlegrounds in the grandest of styles.

To this day, Milito maintains a close relationship with the club. His son was born in Zaragoza and, when passing through the city en route to watch the 2019 Champions League Final in Madrid, he confessed to local media that “for the Milito family, Zaragoza will always have a privileged place in our hearts.” For those lucky enough to see him grace the Romareda turf, the feeling is very much mutual. "It was a passionate relationship, La Romareda was behind him and took him to heroic levels for his effort on the pitch, and, of course, his goals", says Ortiz. “He defended the shirt with passion, desire and courage”, adds Daniel. “Watching Diego Milito play with Real Zaragoza was a pride and a privilege.”

Eventually the prince became the king, as everyone knew he would. It’s just a shame it didn’t happen in Spain.

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