Although a ball has yet to be kicked in the UEFA Champions League semi-finals, the Milito family are already buzzing with the certainty that one of their number will contest the Madrid showpiece next month. Over the coming fortnight, Inter Milan’s Diego Milito and his brother Gabriel at Barcelona will put fraternal ties aside as they compete to propel their clubs closer to European glory in a high-stakes double-header.
The history of the game is littered with siblings playing side by side for big teams, including Fabio and Paolo Cannavaro, Phil and Gary Neville, and Frank and Ronald De Boer. It is not too often that the continent’s foremost club tournament pits brother against brother, and even rarer when the duo in question occupy positions likely to leave them in direct opposition.
A striker, Diego is the eldest of the Milito boys at 30. Nicknamed El Príncipe (The Little Prince) for his uncanny likeness to former Uruguayan forward Enzo Francescoli, he is an elegant, skilful player with excellent positional sense who can boast an average of more than 20 goals per season. Gabriel, or Gaby, is a year younger and a naturally left-footed centre-back reputed for being strong in the tackle and a fine distributor of the ball.
Their reunion at the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza will not be the Argentinian pair’s first. Despite an 18-month spell together at Real Zaragoza between 2005 and 2007, they opted to go their own separate ways very early in their careers, with Diego’s life as a professional footballer kicking off as an 18-year-old at Racing Club Avellaneda, the club his cousins had already joined. Gaby proved more precocious and took his first professional steps at 17, but in the colours of Racing Club’s eternal rivals, Independiente. While the fierce competitiveness between Boca Juniors and River Plate is known the world over, the Avellaneda Clásico between Racing and Independiente more than holds its own as the second most heated derby in Buenos Aires.
‘Friends as well as brothers’
There were certainly sparks when the two clubs crossed swords on 9 March 2003, one of their most memorable encounters in recent years. Diego made a significant contribution by firing the equaliser in a 1-1 draw, but he is remembered even more for chasing after the referee, boot in hand, and asking for his brother to be sent off. Having just administered a crunching tackle, Gabriel had earlier picked up a yellow card for another strong challenge on his brother. “I’m surprised they argued,” joked their father, Jorge. “That said, I don’t think either of them insulted the other’s mother.”
Gaby and I are friends as well as being brothers, no doubt because of the small age difference.
The pair quickly put that contretemps behind them after the final whistle. “Gaby and I are friends as well as being brothers, no doubt because of the small age difference,” said Diego, before alluding to the painful episode surrounding the kidnap of their father, who was eventually released on 31 August 2002 after payment of ransom money. “Our family has always been very tight, which has helped us during the difficult moments.”
In contrast to the likes of Lionel Messi, Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo, who all began grabbing headlines at a young age, Diego spent six years biding his time at modest European outfits Genoa and Zaragoza. Since joining Inter last June his profile has soared and he has struck 22 goals in 40 outings while forming a fearsome partnership with Samuel Eto’o. Meanwhile, his selfless attitude has made him the team’s highest defender up the pitch and a favourite of demanding coach Jose Mourinho.
For his part, Gabriel quickly attracted the attentions of Real Madrid, only for an old knee injury to scupper his transfer when he visited the Spanish capital for a medical. It was a desperate blow, but the defender got back to work and signed for Zaragoza, where he impressed, free of injury problems for four years before signing for Barcelona. Ill fortune nonetheless visited him once again, when he suffered ligament damage in his right knee during the second leg of Barça’s Champions League semi-final against Manchester United in 2008. “I asked him to avoid throwing in the towel, and to fight on,” said Diego, Gabriel’s closest confidant away from the pitch. “He had the necessary character to find the strength needed to return to his best. We went through some difficult times, but thankfully he was lucky enough to be at a club like Barcelona, who treated him exceptionally well.”
The Catalan giants have also been playing exceptionally this term, yet Gabriel is approaching the semi-final with caution. “I’m very moved by the idea of coming up against Diego in a match at this level,” said the stopper, more naturally at ease on the pitch than he is with the media. “Inter were impressive against Chelsea [in the first knockout round], but I hope to be the Milito who qualifies for the final.”
Unsurprisingly, his brother would love nothing more than to find the back of the net. “I’ve always had luck on my side against Barcelona,” he explained. “They’re a fabulous team who play superb football, but that also means they leave spaces at the back. I’ve been lucky enough to profit from that in the past and I hope luck will smile on me again.”
Beyond their Champions League rivalry, the siblings are also eager to be reunited once again on the plane to South Africa, 80 years after their compatriot siblings Mario and Juan Evaristo finished runners-up at the 1930 FIFA World Cup™ in Uruguay. With Mario a striker and Juan a defender in their heyday, Argentina fans will be hoping history repeats itself in another sparkling run to the Final this summer.