What better place to chat with Diego Milito than in the stands of the Estadio Presidente Peron, the home ground of Racing Club, where his prolific career began? It was in these same stands that the Racing Club faithful gathered en masse one distant day in 2004 to wave him off to Italy. They came back in droves just a few short days ago to welcome El Príncipe on his return, the warmth of their reception leaving him in no doubt he was home.
In the ten years he spent in Europe, Milito scored 196 goals in 386 games for Genoa and Inter Milan in Italy and Real Zaragoza in Spain. In that time he got his hands on seven trophies, the most important of them coming in a memorable 2010, when, in addition to playing in his one and only FIFA World Cup™, he helped i Nerazzurri land the UEFA Champions League and the FIFA Club World Cup.
Now 35, Milito has gone back to his roots at Racing, where he won the Argentinian title in 2001, the club’s last to date. Expanding on the reasons behind his return and a number of other football-related issues, he spoke at length to FIFA.com.
FIFA.com: Not so very long ago virtually every Argentinian player chose to return home, but now more and more of them are deciding to end their careers in Europe and stay there. Why the change?
Diego Milito: It’s hard to explain, but I think the decisions players make need to be respected. I can only talk about what I’ve done. I can’t tell you why others have chosen not to come back. Players who stay in Europe deserve every bit as much respect as the ones coming home.
So where does your return fit in?
I’d always planned on coming back and, all being well, finishing my career wearing the shirt of the club where it all started for me. It’s a very personal thing, though. I’m happy because it’s a decision I took with my heart and I don’t think I’m going to regret it.
Who are Racing? How would you describe the club to someone who doesn’t follow Argentinian football, where River and Boca have traditionally been the big names?
It’s hard to describe. You have to experience it to understand it. I grew up here. I’ve spent so much time here, and it’s like home to me. When people in Europe asked me what kind of club Racing were, I told them that the biggest thing about them was the passion of the fans. It’s a really big club, with a lot of history, but with a very special set of fans. They suffer a lot but they really know how to celebrate too.
You’re a hero here. Are you not worried about putting that status at risk, especially as you’ve become involved in other areas of the club too?
Not at all. And I’m very sure of that because I had a lot of people come up to me and say: ‘Are you going back to Racing? You’ve already won the title with them… Argentina’s a tough place to go… Stay in Europe and retire here’. I came back in spite of all that because I’m chasing a dream here. I’m very sure about it and I’m feeling positive.
When you left Inter you said you still felt full of life and that you wanted to be involved again. How much did your lack of involvement at Inter play a part in your decision?
Obviously the chance to get the first-team football I didn’t have with Inter last year because of a serious injury (a torn cruciate ligament in his left knee) came into it. But I’ve always said that I wanted to come back fighting fit and give the club something. The idea of coming, playing and being in good shape had a lot to do with it.
How difficult is it for a player to put up with being on the sidelines, especially in a position like yours, where goals and success are one and the same?
There are some people who maybe just accept the situation because they’re happy with their lot. I lived really well in Milan and so did my family. Everything was in place for me to carry on, but this was what I wanted and my wife and my children supported me. You have to respect the decisions people make.
If you had to choose one highlight from your time in Europe, what would it be?
It’s hard to pick out just the one. It would be easy and a bit obvious to say 2010, when we made history with Inter. No other Italian team had won the treble before and we won the Champions League for the first time in 45 years. They were special moments that will stay with me forever, but I also had some very intense experiences in Genoa, especially when I returned from Zaragoza, and in Spain too, where I lived with my brother Gabriel, even though we weren’t playing together.
Given your knowledge of Italian football, how do you explain the national team’s elimination from the group phase at the last two world finals?
That’s another tough one to answer, especially as Italy had a fantastic team, not least at this last World Cup. The midfield was so strong, with players like (Thiago) Motta, (Marco) Verrati, (Claudio) Marchisio, (Andrea) Pirlo and (Daniele) De Rossi. Some are better than others, but they’re all above average in terms of skill. You still have to respect them despite what happened.
And what about your international career? Do you think you could have had more opportunities or luck even?
(Laughs) A little bit of both. I can’t really say that I deserved to have more opportunities, especially when you consider all the class players Argentina has had up front. All the same, and even though I made the squad a lot of times, I’m still disappointed I didn’t play more. I always tried to contribute whatever I could.
Your bad luck was reflected in the game against Greece at South Africa 2010, which you started, before being replaced by Martin Palermo, who scored an easy goal with virtually his first touch and was on the front page of all the papers the next day.
(Laughs) Luck works in a lot of different ways. I hope nobody takes it the wrong way, but I was a little bit unlucky with the coaches too. They each have their preferences when it comes to strikers and that’s understandable. I got the feeling that (Marcelo) Bielsa really liked me, but when he picked me I didn’t play my best football and I wasn’t fortunate enough to have another coach ‘fall for me’, so to speak – someone who had two strikers and said: ‘Milito is my striker’.
Out of all the players you’ve played with is Lionel Messi the best?
Yes. Lionel is the best in the world, no question. It’s a privilege to have played and trained with him.
Which of your fellow centre-forwards are you most impressed by at the moment?
I like (Radamel) Falcao a lot. He’s a fantastic player. Diego Costa has come on an awful lot too.
You’ve only just come back to Racing, but you’re 35 now. Have you thought about how long you’re going to carry on playing?
No. I’m just trying to enjoy each day. Obviously, I know that I haven’t got much time left, but I want to enjoy it because I had a really bad time when I was injured. It opened my mind a little and let me see things in a different way. My brother Gabriel had the same injury and he said to me: ‘Enjoy it because you’re going to realise what you’ve been through’. So that’s what I’m doing.
We know Gabriel is a massive fan of Independiente, Racing’s main rivals, but wouldn’t you like to work with him at some point?
I can’t really see it happening (laughs). We’re friends as well as brothers, but aside from the fact that I’m not sure what I’m going to be doing after I retire, you also have to remember that we’re each on different sides here in Avellaneda.
One last question, what advice would you have for a fellow professional who’s undecided on whether they should come back home or not?
I’d tell them that it’s a very personal decision. I swam against the tide and people said I was crazy. I knew I wasn’t mad though, and I followed my heart.