Kaká: a footballer of rare substance

Kaká: a footballer of rare substance

The year was 1966; the month, November. American singer-songwriter Little Richard had just performed a brief but energetic gig at L’Olympia in Paris. In the surroundings of one of the French capital’s most intimate venues, the resurgent rocker knocked out a series of up-tempo ditties like Rip It Up and Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.

At the time, rock ‘n’ roll was in the middle of its unstoppable, revolutionary journey to forever change the face of not just music, but society too, and the swinging heyday of the hippie movement and all its trappings were in full bloom across the airwaves of North America and Europe.

All the while, over 5,000 miles and half a hemisphere away, Brazil was in the midst of a much more sombre upheaval as strict governmental control and the beginning of economic reforms began to take hold of a country in flux.

The newly established administrative hub of Brasília had been set up just six years previously in an effort to foster internal growth, and a militaristic regime was firmly putting its foot down around the country just two years after president João Goulart had lost his grip on an increasingly burgeoning society and what it wanted.

Just 16 years later, to the backdrop of a shifting economy and political upheaval, a different Little Richard, who was set to become as well known as his namesake, had just entered the world. Beginning life in the federal capital, “Ricardinho” was far removed from the favelas and the poverty that has fuelled so many of his predecessors to fame and glory, something that makes his hunger for success as a footballer all the more noteworthy.

Brought into the newly fashioned metropolis of the Brazilian Highlands, born to his civil engineer father Bosca Izecson Pereira Leite and his teacher mother, Simone Cristina Santos Leite, Ricardo Izecson dos Santos Leite had arrived on the scene.

Little did either know that their son would eventually grow up to become one of the most revered and respected players the world has ever seen, transforming from a shy tennis-loving kid to a multi-million dollar success story. Indeed, since then, he has guaranteed his status as one of the greatest players to ever play the beautiful game.

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Not unlike ‘Little Richard’, Kaká too was deeply religious and was on course to make a name for himself as one of the most distinctive craftsmen in his field. Growing up in a malleable and unstable political environment that saw his home country continually shape-shift and mould itself throughout his formative years, he and his family were also on the move a great deal as they swapped home in favour of Cuiabá before settling in São Paulo by the time the current Major League Soccer star had turned seven.

It’s no coincidence, then, that his recent club career has mirrored his unsettled early life. Although he has played for only four different clubs, he has been transferred regularly over the years. That’s not to say he hasn’t always remained grounded by his deep faith in Christianity; unaffected by a desire for material goods and far removed from the alcohol-fuelled troubles that have hindered many of his peers, Kaká’s lifestyle has been as pure as the football he’s played.

Kick-starting his career at Alphaville, he soon teamed up with São Paulo’s youth academy where he began training from an early age. Eventually forcing his way into their senior team, Kaká made his official debut at 19 in 2001, a whole 13 years before he would eventually return to his boyhood club again for his Soberano swansong.

Looking to emulate the likes of Denílson, Rogério Ceni, Gérson and countless others who represented one of the most famous Brazilian teams, it was hoped he was going to build on his impressive early days.

Throughout his first season with Tricolor the pacey midfielder netted an eye-catching 12 goals across all competitions, a series of performances that earned him a deserved call-up to the Seleção and inclusion in the 2002 World Cup-winning squad. His second season saw him score 10 times. Playing such scintillating football, it was only a matter of time before he caught the eye of some of Europe’s biggest powerhouses. In the end, it was Serie A outfit AC Milan who came calling. Managing to prise him away for around $9 million, his most fruitful period as a footballing genius had begun, as did a love affair with the club that continues to this very day.

At the time, although there had been a great deal of talk surrounding his arrival at the Rossoneri, it wasn’t expected that he would gel so quickly. Much of the thought behind this stemmed from the sheer fact he was Brazilian. After all, before the tall, elegantly poised playmaker had signed on the dotted line, you could nearly count the number of celebrated outfield Brazilians in Milan’s history books on one hand. Aside from Serginho, Cafu and Leonardo, examples were few and far between – and with Kaká expected to provide goals for a club that had not won a scudetto since 1999, the pressure was already firmly on his young shoulders.

Getting his first taste of football against Ancona, the young starlet made a great impression on the fans as his team ran out 2-0 victors. The club’s official match report even described him as playing with “the authority of a veteran”. Putting away as many as 10 league strikes as he achieved his goal of helping Carlo Ancelotti’s charges win the scudetto ahead of closest rivals AS Roma, “Ricky” also nabbed four assists and managed to make his mark in both Milan derbies as he enjoyed an unexpected, whirlwind introduction to Italian football.

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With a trophy in his hand and a medal around his neck, the ever-smiling prodigy was coming good on his potential and adding something extra to sweeten the deal – but very few could have been prepared for what was to come over the course of the next few years as he continued to grow in his attacking midfield position, becoming one of the best in the business as he did so.

A winner of the UEFA Super Cup, the FIFA Club World Cup and the Supercoppa Italiana, he also picked up a number of personal honours throughout his time with Diavolo such as the prestigious Ballon d’Or gong, the Serie A Player of the Year in 2004 and 2007 as well as being mentioned in the FIFPro World XI three years in a row.

Indeed, his first spell at the Silvio Berlusconi-owned club was awash with great memories and personal achievements, but there were also a number of dark days. Slapped with a 30-point deduction as a result of the Calciopoli match-fixing scandal in 2006, Milan wound up finishing second in the Serie A, but it was at the end of the 2004-05 season that Kaká experienced his biggest pang of personal woe as they lost out on the Champions League crown to Liverpool in one of the most dramatic and entertaining finals the world of football is ever likely to see.

Orchestrating his team’s domineering display inside the opening 45 minutes, he was incredibly cut-throat with his choice of passing as well as his ball retention as Rafa Benítez’s Reds were given the run-around. Without doubt, Milan’s playmaker was their star man, providing two sumptuous assists. And that’s saying a great deal considering he had Andrea Pirlo, Clarence Seedorf, Paolo Maldini, Andriy Shevchenko and a whole host of other legendary talents for team-mates. In particular, his breath-taking pass to set up Hernán Crespo for their third, and final, goal of the night, is widely regarded as one of the finest assists to ever grace a Champions League final.

Famously, they would go on to lose that tie as they wilted under the pressure of a miraculous Liverpool recovery, but the Brazilian’s contributions that night only served to confirm just how special a talent he truly was. In short, it was a night where brilliance and woe collided in the cruellest of fashions – yet it was merely a matter of time before he got the chance to not only redeem himself, but build on the classy tomes he had already written, in impressive fashion.

Again in 2007, Milan found themselves desperately close to another European Cup final.Confronted with the challenge of dispatching Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United, however, they knew it wasn’t going to be easy. But Kaká was on hand to make it so. In the opening leg, despite losing 3-2 at Old Trafford, the Brazilian international served up one of his best individual performances to single-handedly gift his side two hugely vital away goals. Most memorable of all was his second of the night where he slalomed his way through the United defence, mesmerising Gabriel Heinze and Patrice Evra to collide with each other before rolling the ball past the despairing Edwin van der Sar.

The home fans fell silent and Kaká reeled away, a class above the rest, one step closer to greatness, hands raised to the sky in characteristic praise to his God. In that snapshot, he looked like a man on a mission to right the wrongs of 2005. And with faith in himself he would do exactly that as the Rossoneri won the second leg 3-0 as well as avenging themselves against none other than Liverpool in the final in Athens.

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Then and there, with all of Europe watching, Kaká had cemented his status as the best player on the planet and he had the added bonus of being the tournament’s top scorer that season.

Two years later, a move abroad, borne out of a desire for financial gain from the club, and Kaká was off to Real Madrid, despite massive interest from Manchester City and protests from his adoring fans. Notwithstanding a La Liga title and 37 goals during his stay, this was to be the beginning of the end for the World Cup medallist’s sojourn at the pinnacle of the game, as a knee injury hindered his chances of getting into José Mourinho’s first team throughout much of his stay.

A rejuvenated Kaká soon returned to Milan, regaining his passion for the game as he played some terrific football, bringing his total goal tally up to 104 for the Black and Reds in 307 matches. 

São Paulo and Orlando City were his next ports of call, confirming his departure from the upper echelons of world football, but he continues to prove an efficient performer in Major League Soccer, becoming the club’s captain in the process.

Still in his mid-30s, Kaká definitely has many more years in the game, and while lots will pine for his return to European football, an arrival to the Premier League, La Liga or Serie A seems incredibly unlikely at this stage.

Stimulated by a genuine, undying love for AC Milan, it’s almost impossible to envisage the Canarinho supremo plying his trade with another top European club again, especially considering how his stay with Los Blancos transpired. At the end of the day, perhaps the only thing his followers can do is to admire his continuing journey as he pushes for glory in the United States.

More likely, though, is that we will continue to bask in the brilliance of his footballing souvenirs. Because the truth is, his success story is a rather unlikely one which saw him battle tenaciously to achieve his dream, fighting against the current of doubt, achieving greatness in the process; it is one that deserves to be fondly remembered.

At his peak, Kaká was prolific, majestic and a joy to watch. A real mastermind on the field and a gentleman in the truest sense of the word whose passion for the game remains unquenchable.

By Trevor Murray. Follow @TrevorM90

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