Long Reads

Remembering When Kaka Was the Best in the World at AC Milan

The date is Thursday 8th March 2007. It’s three minutes into extra-time in the second leg of the Champions League last-16 tie at the San Siro after 180 minutes of hard-fought stalemate.

Celtic midfielder Evander Sno squanders possession and the opposition swiftly launch a counter attack. A 25-year-old Brazilian lurking just inside his own half senses an opportunity. Italian midfielder Massimo Ambrosini dutifully passes the ball towards the number 22 in the famous red and black stripes of the Rossoneri.

The ball bobbles into the playmaker at pace. His first touch cushions the ball into his path, allowing him to swivel and shrug Neil Lennon to the floor as the Northern Irishman forlornly attempts a challenge. A second touch sees the attacker gallop through the centre circle, accelerating in his own inimitable way.

Three more touches see him surge towards the last defender, the fourth takes him one-on-one with the keeper Artur Boruc. Seemingly impassable over the two legs, the Pole is powerless as the final, decisive touch slides the ball through his legs and into the net. The goalscorer falls gracefully to the floor, his mission accomplished.

AC Milan had knocked Celtic out of the Champions League 1-0 on aggregate, with their talisman delivering the goods once again. This was vintage, glorious Kaká in full flight.

The Bhoys European adventure had come to an end, but few present that night would have believed the match winner’s upward trajectory would soon reverse.

AC Milan would go on to win the Champions League that year, avenging their defeat to Liverpool in the final two years previously by defeating them 2-1 in Athens. Kaká set up Filippo Inzaghi’s winner and was the top scorer in the competition with ten goals. He would go on to claim the 2007 Ballon d’Or and FIFA World Player of the Year awards.

Since then those accolades have been dominated by two men – Ronaldo and Messi. Thirteen years later, Kaká and Luka Modric remain the only players outside of that duo to win the Ballon d’Or.

This is the story of when a tall Brazilian playmaker with immense pace on the ball became the best player in the world.

Not So Humble Beginnings

Ricardo Izecson dos Santos Leite was born in Gama, in the Central-West region of Brazil. Unlike many Brazilian footballers, Kaká comes from a privileged background. His father was an engineer and his mother a teacher. This provided a financially secure upbringing for Ricardo. He didn’t need to rely on football to pull him out of poverty, as many of his peers would aim to do.

His younger brother, Digão, and cousin, Eduardo Delani, were also professional footballers. Digão, now 35, was a central defender. He came through at São Paulo and joined AC Milan, at the age of 19. After making just one senior appearance at Milan, he endured several loan stints across Italy. Whilst his career was modest compared to his older brother’s, Digão was responsible for the naming of Kaká. Struggling to pronounce “Ricardo” as a child, he instead called him “Caca” which evolved into Kaká.

The family moved to São Paulo when Kaká was 7. Playing football locally, his potential was discovered by professional club São Paulo FC and subsequently joined their youth academy, progressing through the ranks until a seminal moment occurred at the age of 18.

After receiving a yellow card while playing youth football for São Paulo in the Paulista Junior Championships in 2000, Kaká was suspended for the following game. He spent the resulting free weekend visiting his grandparents in Caldas Novas. The city, located in central Brazil, is considered to be the largest hydro-thermal resort in the world.

On that weekend off, the family visited one of the many water parks in Caldas Novas and after coming down one of the slides, Kaká hit his head as he was plunged to the bottom of the pool below. He fractured the sixth vertebra in his neck. “I hit my head at the bottom of the pool and my neck snapped”, Kaká said of the incident.

The spinal fracture could have paralysed Kaká and ended his career before it got going.

Whilst Kaká’s parents raised him as a Christian, his remarkable full recovery strengthened his faith in God and inspired his famous goal celebration in which he points to the sky. This was to become a familiar sight across Europe over the next ten years.

The accident refocussed Kaká with a supreme determination to reach the very top of the game. He made a list of the things he wanted to achieve in football. The final item on that list was to win the Champions League.

Kaká made his senior debut for São Paulo on 1st February 2001 and showed early goalscoring prowess, recording 12 goals in 27 appearances in his debut campaign. Two more seasons in Brazil took his tally to 23 goals in 58 appearances. That form saw him earn a place in Filipe Scolari’s 2002 World Cup squad in Japan and South Korea. At 20, Kaká picked up a winner’s medal despite featuring for just 25 minutes against Costa Rica in a star-studded Seleção squad.

Kaká’s impressive domestic performances were not going unnoticed across the Atlantic, and he would soon be reunited with some of his Brazilian teammates.

Joining Milan and becoming a World-Beater

AC Milan signed Kaká for €8.5 million in August 2003, joining fellow countrymen Cafu, Rivaldo, Roque Júnior, Dida and Serginho in the fashion capital. Still a youngster at 21, it would have been perfectly understandable if it had taken the South American starlet a year or so to settle in the foreign surroundings of Europe.

To the contrary, the fresh-faced Kaká took little more than a few weeks of the 2003-04 season to dislodge experienced Portuguese attacking midfielder Rui Costa from the starting lineup. Goals continued to come regularly for the number 22 and his performances kept Rivaldo on the bench, notching ten goals in thirty appearances as Milan won the Scudetto and the UEFA Super Cup.

Kaká was named Serie A Footballer of the Year at the end of his first season as well as being nominated for the Ballon d’Or. No mean feat for a South American on their maiden campaign in Europe.

Kaká’s upbringing seems a likely contributor to his seamless adaptation in Italy. Well educated, he took everything in his long elegant stride, aware but not fearful of the cultural differences he was being exposed to. Unlike many other expatriate Brazilians, he seemed to have a genuine desire to be in Italy and absorbed his surroundings. Just as he was with the ball at his feet, he was at ease in the Bel Paese.

Standing at 6″1′, Kaká was atypically tall for a playmaker, with shaggy hair and a rangy stride. While his finesse on the ball was perhaps unsurprising for a Brazilian, his pace and power while running with the ball really caught the eye. Combined with his height, it made him almost impossible to deal with.

That pace really set him apart, usually literally as nobody could keep up with him. Kaká seemed to have the unfathomable quality of running faster with the ball than without it. Seldom is this seen, with the great Lionel Messi another that has this gift. Appropriately, one of Kaká’s most famous goals came in a 2006 international friendly against Argentina.

Seizing on a mistake by a young Messi midway into Brazil’s half, Kaká sweeps away with the ball. He runs with the ball all the way, those trademark big touches allowing him to drive all the way into the Argentina box before side footing home. Messi sprints frantically in the wake of Kaká. Looking like a small child chasing an older boy who has stolen his packed lunch, those little Argentinian legs working overtime but relative to Kaká he seems to be only going backwards. Back to 2004, AC Milan had a formidable backline consisting of Paolo Maldini, Alessandro Nesta, Jaap Stam and Cafu in front of Dida. In front of them, Kaká began to spearhead a decorated midfield loaded with quality behind prolific Ukrainian striker Andriy Shevchenko.

Italian manager Carlo Ancelotti regularly deployed a diamond formation, with Andrea Pirlo sitting at the base and midfield generals Gennaro Gattuso and Clarence Seedorf behind ‘Ricky’, as he was affectionately known. Starring especially in the Champions League that year, the Brazilian turned in an imperious display in the first half of the final. With Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez neglecting to field a holding midfielder against the woolly-haired wonder, he made the most of every inch in which he was afforded to roam.

Kaká was insatiable, dismantling Liverpool in those 45 minutes. After winning the free-kick for Paolo Maldini’s opener, he proceeded to lift the ball through to set Shevchenko clear, who rolled it across to plate up Hernán Crespo’s first goal. Next, Kaká swivelled away from Steven Gerrard and delivered a glorious raking pass through the Liverpool defence that even a well-positioned Jamie Carragher stretching every sinew of his being could not reach. Crespo was in for his second, stabbing the ball sumptuously over the crouching Jerzy Dudek to give Milan their third unanswered goal before the interval.

The brilliance of Kaká can be best heard in the awestruck words of English commentator Clive Tyldesley, who clearly recognised that superlatives would fail to do this calibre of play justice:

“Look at that from Kaká, and what a pass too for Crespo and what a goal that is, what a goal that is. Milan now playing football out of this world, nobody can live with this.”

If it hadn’t been for the magic of a Scouser who seemingly could live with it on that wild night in Istanbul, that first half individual performance alone would rightly be remembered amongst the greatest ever in a final. Steven Gerrard hauled his beloved Liverpool to an almost freakish comeback, with the Reds prevailing on penalties.

Despite the crushing disappointment of AC Milan losing that match, Kaká would go on to be named the 2005 UEFA Club Football Best Midfielder. By now Kaká was well recognised as being amongst the very elite players in Europe.

The following season, Kaká scored 14 league goals as Milan finished runners-up in Serie A. For their part in the 2006 Calciopoli scandal, however, they were deducted 30 points, dropping them to third in the league table. Following the 2005-06 season, Kaká was nominated for the Ballon d’Or and the FIFA World Player of the Year Awards for the third consecutive year, and chosen in the Fifpro World XI for the first time.

The start of the 2006-07 season saw Shevchenko depart for West London as Roman Abramovich secured the Ukrainian as the latest jewel in his crown. This was a rare precedent as Milan didn’t sell their best players. It made Kaká the undisputed main man at AC Milan. He was given even more licence to roam between the lines of midfield and attack. He bagged a Champions League hat-trick against Anderlecht in November 2006 before that goal against Celtic to take Milan through to the quarter-finals.

In scoring three goals that sunk Manchester United across the two legs of their semi-final, Kaká bamboozled their defence at Old Trafford to such an extent that Patrice Evra and Gabriel Heinze ended up crashing into each other as Kaká evaded them en route to scoring his second of the night.

Then in December 2007, Kaká won the Ballon d’Or, well ahead of runner-up Cristiano Ronaldo.

He celebrated this by scoring one and assisting two as AC Milan beat Boca Juniors 4-2 in the final of the Club World Cup. Unsurprisingly, Kaká was named the best player in the competition. The accolades continued to fly in as he won the FIFA World Player of the Year the very next day. The 2007 Serie A Footballer of the Year award followed soon after.

This all confirmed something that defences around Europe had known for months. Kaká was the best, but sadly that was as good as it got.

The Start of the end and Madrid

After 15 league goals in the 2007-08 season, Kaká finished fourth in the FIFA World Player of the Year award. By this point, Ronaldo and Messi were beginning to approach the superhuman levels that would see the award, along with the Ballon d’Or, taken out of the hands of the rest of the world for the next decade.

In January 2009, the now financially lubricated Manchester City tabled an audacious bid of £100 million for Kaká. At the time, that was an astronomical figure. It was more than double the world-record fee, which was still the £46 million with which Los Blancos had parted with in taking Zinedine Zidane to the Bernabéu from Juventus.

While not wanting to lose their talisman, no club could have flatly turned away such a sum. Fortunately, Kaká was always unlikely to leave his beloved Milan in his prime for a fledgling project in rainy Manchester, despite the absurd £500,000 weekly wage reportedly on offer.

Still, this must have unsettled the Brazilian, as it does for any player when it surfaces that their club can foresee a future without them. He contributed 16 league goals as AC Milan finished third in the league. Off the pitch, the club was in some economic uncertainty as a result of the global financial crisis.

In June 2009, it was announced that Real Madrid had acquired Kaká’s services for a world-record £59 million. That record would only stand briefly, as Cristiano Ronaldo joined for £80 million in the same window, as well as £30 million French striker Karim Benzema. The economic downturn was seemingly not affecting Los Blancos.

It is clear that if Kaká could have stayed with the Rossoneri, he would have. Quite simply, the Brazilian was the most profitable asset the club had. The words of Kaká illustrate the heavy heart with which he left the San Siro.

“I can officially say I’m a Real Madrid player. My professional link with AC Milan finishes now, but my sentimental link will never end.”

Injury ravaged Kaká during his four seasons in the Spanish capital. He went under the knife in August 2010 for surgery on a long-standing knee injury, keeping him out of action for eight months. That surgery coincided with the signing of German World Cup star Mesut Özil, who benefitted from Kaká’s absence to become José Mourinho’s preferred playmaker.

Even when he returned, niggling injuries such as iliotibial band syndrome continued to hamper Kaká, “I could never prove to him (Mourinho) that I was in good shape. I trained, fought and prayed a lot”. Having been revered in Milan, Kaká was unaccustomed to the demanding, hostile nature of Real Madrid fans.

The 2011-12 season, in which Real Madrid secured the La Liga title with 100 points, saw Kaká return eight goals and fourteen assists in 40 appearances in all competitions. This was Kaká’s most productive season at the Bernabéu, but it was clear that Kaká was not the player he was at Milan. His influence paled in comparison.

The ball carrying pace that made him such a tantalising attacking force was gone. While the finesse and ease on the ball remained, he just didn’t seem to be able to open his legs as far at Madrid compared to Milan. His pace facilitated all of his best work. It was sad to see that the hustle no longer perpetuated his movement.

He always had the capacity to score fine volleys like that against Brugge in the 2003 Champions League and long-range shots such as against Empoli in the league in the same year, or in that treble against Anderlecht in 2006. He had those caressed closer range finishes off either foot in his locker too. But it was that running with the ball at pace that was the true essence of Kaká.

Similar to that goal against Celtic, seeing him gliding away from the Fenerbahçe defence in the 2005 Champions League is the sort of memory we should hold dear of Kaká.

In 2012 he became the first sportsperson to reach 10 million followers on Twitter, but it appeared that his legs had run away from him.

Return to Milan and missed opportunities

In August 2013, Kaká left Real Madrid and returned to AC Milan, resuming his iconic number 22 shirt. He suffered an injury in his very first game and insisted upon not receiving wages from Milan while he recovered. That gesture encapsulates the warmth Kaká felt for the club. He has recently said that he should not have left the San Siro.

Almost 500 supporters congregated at Linate airport to welcome home ‘Ricky’. Kaká was returning to a very different footballing environment, however. Gone were the days of Milan housing many of Europe’s best players, rather their hopes relied on the maverick talents of Italians Mario Balotelli and Stephan El Shaarawy.

Despite surprising cynics by returning a respectable 7 goals in 30 league appearances, it was overwhelmingly clear now that Kaká would never give the world the lung-busting runs he once had.

Kaká stayed with Milan for just one season before joining future Major League Soccer franchise Orlando City as their first Designated Player. In the interim period before Orlando entered the league, Kaká returned to Sao Paulo for a brief, sentimental loan spell.

Now sporting a light beard, Kaká was no longer a fresh-faced starlet. He still scored 24 goals across 75 league appearances in his three seasons in the USA, before announcing his retirement in December 2017.

Now aged 38, you would think Kaká would look back on his career with regrets. However, this has never been the way of a man who exudes such grace. He places himself within his faith, and after such a serious accident in his early years, is grateful for the journey he has been on.

For fans, we can’t help feel Brazil squandered the opportunity to run away with the World Cup in 2006, armed with an embarrassment of riches. A quartet of Kaká, Ronaldinho, Ronaldo and Adriano should have been too much for anyone to deal with. Instead, the side lacked balance and Brazil exited to France in the quarterfinals.

Andrea Pirlo, who was sitting at the base of that fine Milan diamond remember, perhaps had the best view of peak-era Kaká.

“I remember how badly we took it as a team when Kaká left Milan. For two or three years he was the best player in the world. There was a point when teams just had no idea how to stop him.”

Over the last thirteen years, we have been spoilt by the unreasonable genius of a Portuguese-Argentinian duopoly. The risk is that the legend of Kaká will be smothered if history overwrites that two to three year period where he displayed his finest work.

Let’s cherish Ronaldo and Messi while we still have them, but when the clock ticks forward to the next generation, Kaká deserves his own special place too.

By Andrew Misra