Blessed with an extraordinary talent that he would claim is a gift from God, Ricardo Izecson dos Santos Leite – better known as Kaka – is one of the iconic players of the 21st century. There is almost certainly more to come from this creative Brazilian, nonetheless his achievements at the age of 27 are already enough to justify his status as one the greatest footballers in Serie A history.
Unlike the majority of samba stars, Kaka was born into a wealthy family who encouraged his passion for football. He was signed up to Sao Paolo at a very young age and was developing his skills at a growing pace, until, as a fifteen-year-old, Kaka was involved in a swimming pool accident that caused a fracture to his spine. The injury not only threatened to finish his career but leave the young boy paralysed for the rest of his life, denying the world of such a mercurial talent. Needless to say Kaka made a full recovery – this unlikely event convincing the player of a higher power’s outside influence, and subsequently devoting himself to Christian Evangelism. Scoring twelve goals in his debut season at just 18, Kaka was instantly noticed by European club scouts, and after another productive season honing his precocious technique in the Brazilian Serie A, he made the move to Milan.
Kaka undoubtedly had a big impact during his first season at the Rossoneri, helping the team to the Scudetto. However, arguably it was not until the epic Champions League final against Liverpool in 2005 when the Brazilian truly announced himself to the rest of the footballing world. Despite Milan’s cruel defeat on penalties after a Steven Gerrard inspired second half come back, Kaka was instrumental in everything that was good about Milan’s play, including a sublime turn and pass for Hernan Crespo’s second and Milan’s third goal that left football purists drooling in delight. Controversial Milan owner Silvio Berlusconi had described Kaka’s €8.5 million transfer fee as “peanuts” and this statement was confirmed as Kaka was named the Best Midfielder of the Tournament.
But that superb year was just a taste of what was to come. Kaka had shown that he could dictate a game at the highest level, but still had to bridge the gap from edge-of-your-seat, exciting playmaker to the world’s finest footballer. Following an appeal over their punishment in the infamous Calciopoli scandal, Milan snuck into the Champions League for the 2006/07 season, having to play in all the preliminary qualification rounds that precede the group stages. The Milan Chiefs ensured that the platform was provided, all they needed was for their star player to take advantage of it to showcase his skills – which he duly obliged. Kaka, playing in a more advanced position following the departure of legendary striker Andrei Shevchenko to Chelsea, relished his centre-stage role, leading Milan to European glory and finishing the tournament as top-scorer. Some of the goals he scored were breathtaking – particularly in the two-legged Semi Final win over current champions Manchester United, where his performance was simply too good for United’s defence to handle. Individual awards and prestige inevitably followed, as the awesome Brazilian was named FIFA World Player of the Year and received the coveted Ballon D’Or. Even Sir Alex Ferguson couldn’t deny that the Milan magician was a worthy winner, conceding that he was one of the two best players in the world (the other being his very own future winner, Cristiano Ronaldo).
But what is it that makes the Brazilian attacking midfielder so unique to watch? Every great player (and by great, we’re talking only a handful of players per generation) has a certain idiosyncrasy that defines and separates him from his contemporaries. In the past, there have been players like Zinedine Zidane, whose composure and vision on the ball was at times truly phenomenal. At present, there are players like Lionel Messi, whose agility when dribbling consistently defies all expectations of what a player can do. Kaka has a plethora of strengths, ranging from his ability to pick a pass, to his deceptive pace, to his capability to score thunderbolt goals and well-placed finishes, underlining his variety and quality.
However, what really singles him out, what makes supporters instantly realise that Kaka is in possession of the football is the way he moves with the ball at his feet. Kaka has a certain running style that consistently deceives the opposition defenders – he seems to be strolling, looking for a routine square pass, but then suddenly goes up a few gears in the space of a second and ghosts past his man. His wonderful coordination between his eyes and his feet means he worries less than the average player about ball control – he can always rely on his ability to retain possession, thus allowing for this rare turn of pace that so often leads Milan to victory. The goals against Celtic and Manchester United in the 2006/07 Champions League are prime examples of the Brazilian’s trademark talent. In both cases, the respective defender seems to be near enough to negate the danger, yet the outcome is once again that famous hands-to-the-heavens celebration and the ball in the back of the net.
This individual skill, along with notable attributes such as his surprising strength and a relatively injury-free record, equates to a classy operator that is adored by millions of Milan and Brazil fans, and appreciated by the majority of football enthusiasts. The Brazilian genius is Milan’s crown jewel, their most coveted asset, with perennial summer speculation of a record-breaking transfer to Real Madrid the source of much frustration and tediousness to Milan supporters. However, it was not until January 2009 that a potential move away from the San Siro became more than just fish-and-chip newspaper headlines, but one that rocked the foundations of the footballing world. Manchester City, armed with a bottomless war-chest, bank-rolled by the incomprehensibly rich Sheik Mansour, discarded with any kind of notion of slowly building a team towards success and came in with a ludicrous offer of (allegedly) £100 million for Kaka’s services.
With fellow countryman Robinho already on board at Eastlands, Chief Executive Garry Cook and Manager Mark Hughes pinpointed Kaka as a way of demonstrating their intent. Kaka was left in a real mess as dollar signs began to roll in his eyes, which was fairly surprising as he is supposedly already the highest paid player in the world. Milan could not be blamed for entertaining such an excessive proposal – despite Kaka’s significance to the team, a lot can be done with £100 million. However, in a triumph of loyalty over money, Kaka rejected City’s approach and chose to stay with the Rossoneri – delighting his supporters.
And in this image lies the other crucial factor associated with Kaka. He has become a symbol of Milan, taking the mantle from the immortal Paolo Maldini, who looks like he’ll finally hang up his boots at the end of this season. As the Brazilian stated only on Monday, “I have experienced a very important part in my life, which made me understand what Milan means to me. [Rejecting Manchester City’s offer] allowed me to understand a lot of things and now I am stronger…it is an essential point to me, feeling love and support [from the Milan fans]”. Whilst the cynic inside may regard these comments as the stereotypical “I love the club, the fans are everything to me” noises that a player makes just before moving to pastures new, but with Kaka the sentiment seems genuine. Although one can never predict the future, the smart money would be on this young-faced footballing genius seeing out his career with the Rossoneri, cementing his place not only in the Milan hall of fame, but in the history of Serie A’s greatest talents.
Past Lessons in Calcio