REMEMBERING KAKÁ: THE PORTRAIT OF A GENIUS
It’s 23rd May 2007 on a warm and sweaty evening at the Olympic Stadium in Athens. A fitting venue for a battle between Gods, or even better, a Champions League final between two titans of European football. AC Milan vs Liverpool, a replay of 2005’s indelible masterpiece and the Champions League’s best ever final in the eyes of many. It’s the 81st minute and Milan lead thanks to a deflected Pirlo free-kick off Pippo Inzaghi towards the end of the first half. What does the next minute have in common with that last statement? The player who won that freekick was about to lose his man and provide an exceptional assist for the veteran forward to score his second goal and effectively seal the tie for the Rossoneri in the 82nd minute. That player was Ricardo Izecson dos Santos Leite, more commonly known by his moniker: Kaká.
AC Milan’s 6th Ballon D’or winner Kaká, who eventually beat both Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo to the award that year, was in phenomenal form in the 2006/07 season. He bagged every possible individual honour for his performances that season; FIFA Player of The Year, World XI, UEFA Team of The Year, UEFA Champions League Top Scorer, UEFA Club Forward of The Year, UEFA Club and Footballer of the Year, and Serie A Foreign Player of The Year. The list goes on and on.
Kaká burst onto the scene in 2001 with his hometown club Sao Paulo where he worked his way through the youth set-up. At 18, he made his debut and in two seasons, he made 59 appearances and scored 23 goals. His impressive form won him a national call-up to the Seleção for the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea, a tournament that saw Brazil lift the trophy for a 5th time in their history, making up for the defeat to France in the 1998 World Cup final. Kaká only played 25 minutes in that tournament but took home what any accomplished player would be truly jealous of, a World Cup gold medal.
After Kaká was named the Bola de Ouro (Golden Ball) as the best player in the 2002 Campeonato Brasileiro, he joined Serie A club Milan for a fee of €8.5 million in 2003. At first, because of his name, Kaká was made fun of by other Serie A presidents. The Juventino Luciano Moggi was famously quoted saying “Kaká? We could never sign anyone with a name like that.” in 2003. However, AC Milan had the last laugh.
Kaká turned up at Milan’s Malpensa airport wearing a suit and a pair of glasses. He looked more like a student than a footballer. A passage taken from Carlo Ancelotti’s autobiography describes his first impressions of Kaká.
“They told me about a boy in Brazil, apparently very good, but who I did not know, Ricardo Izecson dos Santos Leite. For his name he seemed more like a preacher to me, and I was not that mistaken. He carried the word of football and faith: listen to him and you’ll be happy. The club was unsure whether to bring him directly to Milanello or allow him to stay for another six months at Sao Paolo. After assessing our options we decided to speed up the process and bring him to the club as soon as possible so that he could begin training with us and for me to meet him. From my point of view, it was a blind signing, full of good words and hopes, but I needed facts. Kaká arrived at Malpensa and I put my head in my hands: his glasses, his comb-over hairstyle, his nice kid face…he was just missing a lunch box and a book. We had signed an Erasmus student.
Welcome to Erasmus projects, it wouldn’t be bad if you also can play football. With the ball, he was a monster. I stopped talking, just because I couldn’t find the words. There were no words to describe what I was seeing. That Jehovah’s Witness was actually a man who talked to God, as we found out later. In one of our conversations, I think we even talked about football. In one of his first sessions on the training field he faced Gattuso, who put in a terrific tackle on him. But Kaká did not miss the ball. From his point of view, that meant promoting his new teammate. Still with the ball in his foot he shot on target from 30 meters with Nesta being unable to stop him. We took that kid’s glasses off and dressed him in a football kit, and he turned out to be what we didn’t expect: a genius.”
What a start from the Brazilian at his new club. There seemed to be no real pressure around Kaká at Milan which is what helped propel him into stardom at the Rossoneri. Kaká was instrumental in Ancelotti’s vision of attacking football, linking up play between the midfield and strikers in a trequartista role. Let’s be honest though. When you are playing alongside midfielders like Andrea Pirlo, Gennaro Gattuso and Clarence Seedorf and threading the ball to players like Pippo Inzaghi and Andriy Shevchenko, life’s good.
Kaká managed to bench another incredible Brazilian in Rivaldo as well as the silky Rui Costa at Milan in his first few seasons. Milan’s glorious newfound No.10 helped the Rossoneri to their first Serie A title after 4 years in the 2003/2004 season. In his first season at Milan, Kaká made 30 appearances, scoring 10 goals and providing several important assists.
During his first stint at the Rossoneri, Kaká played 193 games and scored 70 goals, winning everything one could with Milan: the Serie A, the Supercoppa Italiana, the Champions League, the UEFA Super Cup and the Club World Cup. He almost single-handedly demolished European giants like Bayern Munich, Celtic, Liverpool and Manchester United. Kaká’s unmatched brilliance that season was encapsulated by his iconic solo effort at Old Trafford against Manchester United in the first leg of their Champions League semi-final clash. He looped the ball over Gabriel Heinze with a well-executed sombrero before heading the ball past the in-rushing Patrice Evra with a mesmeric touch, causing an embarrassing collision between the pair before slotting the ball past a hapless Edwin Van der Sar with typical composure to the utter shock of the United faithful as deadly silence pervaded the much revered Theatre of Dreams.
Despite his prolific success at the club, it wasn’t always plain sailing for Kaká at Milan. In 2005, Istanbul happened. He was unplayable in that first half against Liverpool, setting up the third with a spellbinding through ball. The heartache had a major physiological effect on Kaká. However, he was able to fight back and conquer the world.
Kaká was absolutely adored at Milan and was their golden boy for many seasons. His exemplary fast paced dribbling and famous hands in the air celebration forever earned him the right to free drinks with the Milanistas. All good things come to an end however, and in the summer of 2009, Kaká left Milan to join the Galacticos in a famous transfer window that also saw Cristiano Ronaldo leave Old Trafford to join him at Madrid. The Brazilian broke Zidane’s previous record after being signed for €68.5 million, but this record was soon smashed by Ronaldo in a matter of days as the Portuguese winger was brought in for a mammoth fee of €94 million.
Kaká played for Madrid until 2013, playing 85 games and scoring 23 goals, but his spell was plagued with injuries and he never hit the form he had previously reached at the Rossoneri. He did enjoy success however, winning the Copa del Rey in 2010 and La Liga in 2012. A shell of his former self and seeing Ronaldo and Messi dominate the world stage, Kaká returned to Milan in what turned out to be his farewell season in Europe. He joined up with the likes of Mario Balotelli and Stephen El Shaarawy and played in Milan’s final season in the Champions League to date. He was also made vice-captain by the club in the effort to improve fan and club relations. Milan had started their demise from the top and Kaká was seen as an attempt to satisfy the Rossoneri faithful once again. He made 30 appearances and scored 7 goals, but the fairytale ending wasn’t to be as Kaká again parted ways with Milan and started an adventure in the MLS with Orlando City.
I’ll be honest, even as a Milan fan, I bought an Orlando shirt with Kaká on the back. He had some success in America, scoring 24 goals in 70 appearances. He made the MLS All Star team and seemed to show some of the class we had been used to witnessing in earlier seasons, albeit against lower level opposition. Kaká’s career came full circle as he returned to Sao Paolo on loan and retired at his boyhood club at the age of 35.
The Brazilian maestro had the opportunity to play under some of the best managers in history in some of the greatest sides the game has ever seen. He was also fortunate enough to play alongside stalwarts that would made the world dream and if you take a look Kaká’s dream XI team, you’ll realize the caliber he had become accustomed to witnessing; Iker Casillas, Roberto Carlos, Cafu, Nesta, Maldini, Pirlo, Seedorf, Xabi Alonso, Ronaldinho, Cristiano Ronaldo and Ronaldo Nazário. An unbelievable team that would only be made better by Kaká’s inclusion.
Kaká had an illustrious career, achieving things that only professional footballers can dream of. He was the absolute epitome of elegance and class mixed with raw talent and rapid pace. Watching him single-handedly turn games on their heads was a joy to see, epitomizing Milan at the peak of their powers. Even the most optimistic of Milanistas is sure if they will ever have another player like him but what is for sure is that they will always remember the ‘Smoking Bianco’ fondly and reminisce an exciting time in Milan’s history where they dominated the world with their Brazilian golden boy.