Back in 1997 I was in Port Said, Egypt, watching an Under-17 World Cup game between Argentina and Bahrain. The Argentine No. 6, the captain, caught my eye. Odd, that, for he was a defender, a center back, and I can usually find more exciting players to concentrate on. But this boy played with tremendous skill and poise, never seemed hurried, never just whacked the ball away, was always seeking to play it out of defense, preferably on the ground. Sometimes it didn't work, and he got himself and his team into trouble -- but even then he seemed to find a way out of tight corners with skill and elegance.
The lineup sheet said he was Gabriel Milito -- and he was just three days past his 17th birthday. That night, back at the hotel, I asked Hugo Tocalli, the Argentine assistant coach, about the boy. "He will be a good professional, possibly a great one," he said.
So I followed Milito's career. Within three months of returning to Argentina, he made his debut for the first team of Independiente. He played only a couple of games that season, but in the 1998-99 season, he was a regular starter, at age 18. Next season, Coach Cesar Menotti said of him "He's only 19, but he plays with the composure of a player of 30. He's phenomenal."
A serious injury to his right knee meant he missed nearly all of the 2001-02 season, but Milito returned the following year to play 34 games as Independiente won the Apertura championship.
Then, in 2003 the 22-year-old Milito touched the heights. Real Madrid came calling. They wanted to sign him as a replacement for the Real legend, Fernando Hierro.
What quickly followed must have been one of the worst disappointments a pro soccer player has ever had to endure. Milito was flown to Madrid, his signing was announced, and a press conference to introduce him was scheduled for Friday July 18. At the last moment, with the press already assembled, Real postponed the event, stating that medical tests on Milito were still ongoing.
Three days later, Real announced that the deal was off. Its medical department did not like the look of Milito's right knee and judged that "the player's maximum performance cannot be guaranteed over the next four seasons."
Milito was never bitter about the turn of events. He did not return to Argentina because Real Zaragoza moved in quickly to sign him for a reported fee of $4 million. An incredible bargain.
Over the next four years, Milito played 137 games for Zaragoza, making a total mockery of the Real Madrid medical department's prognosis. (The reputation of the Real doctors went from bad to worse, when, in 2004, they OKed the $25 million signing of England's Jonathan Woodgate as the new replacement for Hierro. Woodgate was injured at the time of signing, and did not make his debut until a year later. In his first game he scored an own goal, and was red-carded. Eventually, in 2007, Real sold Woodgate to England's Middlesbrough for $13 million. He had played only nine Liga games for the club, which had lost $12 million on the trades. The Spanish sports paper Marca conducted a poll, and the Woodgate fiasco was voted "the worst signing of the 21st century").
Milito built up a reputation as one of the best young defenders in La Liga, and in 2007 -- by now a regular starter for Argentina -- he was traded to Barcelona for $28 million. After a successful first season (27 games played), misfortune -- or was it the curse of the Real Madrid medics? -- struck again. Milito twisted his right knee badly in a Champions League game against Manchester United in April 2008.
It has been nearly two years since then, but Barcelona has stuck by its player, has continued his treatment until last week -- 602 days after his injury -- Milito was able to start a competitive game for Barcelona -- a Copa del Rey match against Sevilla. He came through the test well, though Barca suffered a rare home defeat.
It has been an extraordinary saga for Milito, one that he has born with outstanding grace. Never, to my knowledge, has he uttered a rancorous word against Real Madrid for the shabby way in which he was treated. As always with a player coming back from a serious injury, only time will tell us if Gabriel Milito, now 28 years old, can regain his full form and confidence.