SINCE KAKÁ WAS gilded with the title in 2007, no player other than Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo has won the Ballon d’Or. In the years that have followed, the world of football has changed remarkably. A man who probably, but not certainly, is the best English right-back in the Premier League became the most expensive defender of all time. Red Bu … sorry, RasenBallsport Leipzig qualified for the Champions League at the first attempt, while the England manager may well have implicated himself in a corruption scandal whilst drinking a pint of wine. Oh, and Neymar.
This is an age where a Portuguese super-agent is essentially running one of the Championship’s most historic clubs, and there is little wholesome or innocent about the modern game. In the decade since he was named the finest footballer on the planet, the fall from grace of the boy who belonged to Jesus and the club he epitomised has been startling.
Kaká was tempted by Florentino Pérez’s poisoned chalice of a world-record transfer to Real Madrid, shrinking to an injury-prone shadow of his Milan self who could not hope to eclipse the man who smashed that record later in the same window. Milan have flunked to as low as 10th, their lowest league finish this millennium, and though the signs are promising of better days ahead, they are pretenders to the Italian throne rather than opulent kings.
Given the decline of Kaká’s career in the last decade, it is easy to forget just how good he was. This seems a little strange given that he was, by popular consensus, the best footballer in the world, with a 20-year-old Messi and 22-year-old Ronaldo in second and third behind him. “This is a new era in football,” the Brazilian said after lifting the award. “A new cycle is starting. There were great players before, but now the new players are starting to make history.”
He was almost right, but the new era started the following year and left him behind, seen through the rear-view mirror sitting meekly by the side of the road as Messi and Ronaldo left him and all others in their dust. As he graciously admitted more recently, Kaká was the last Ballon d’Or winner born on this planet – and how elite-level football misses him.
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Looking back at Kaká’s bare statistics from the 2006/07 season, it isn’t obvious why he was named the finest player on the planet. Eighteen goals and 10 assists in all competitions doesn’t seem all that impressive in the Messi-Ronaldo era, where 50 goals a season has become a remarkable norm. And, in fairness, Kaká wasn’t able to exert too much influence in Serie A that year as Milan began their decline.
A team containing Dida, Cafu, Paolo Maldini, Alessandro Nesta, Andrea Pirlo, Clarence Seedorf, Gennaro Gattuso, Filippo Inzaghi and Brazilian Ronaldo stumbled to fourth after initially being docked eight points in the Calciopoli scandal. Performances were poor, attendances at the San Siro were tumbling and Inter stormed to the title, finishing 36 points clear of their city rivals and doing the double over them. The first Derby della Madonnina, a 4-3 victory for Inter, was one of the finest games Serie A has produced and fully deserving of a rewatch 10 years on.
Kaká did his bit in that game. Trailing 4-2 in the dying minutes, he plucked a clearance out of the sky and lifted a featherweight chipped volley over a crowd of defenders and goalkeeper from the edge of the area to give Milan hope, but it wasn’t enough. The Rossoneri lost their next two games, and Inter never looked back.
In Europe, though, things were different. A straightforward group containing AEK Athens, Lille and Anderlecht was swatted away, with Kaká notching the first five of his eventual 10 European strikes along the way. Throughout the knockout stages, he was an elegant blend of poise and panache, drifting between defenders, persevering through tough spells and commanding the ball with an effortless grace that only a Brazilian playmaker truly can.
Against Celtic, 180 goalless minutes in the first knockout round were swept under the rug in one extra-time movement as Kaká flowed unstoppably through the centre of the pitch, sidestepped the bruising Stephen McManus and Paul Telfer, and stroked the ball languidly under the advancing Artur Boruc.
In the next round, Bayern Munich posed more commanding opposition. In the first leg, the scores were tied up at 1-1 in the closing stages of the match before Kaká won and converted a penalty. Cynically scythed down by compatriot Lúcio as he burst to the byline, he fired the spot-kick into the bottom corner to give Milan the lead, before Daniel van Buyten’s late equaliser snatched an away-goal advantage for the Bavarians.
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In the return leg, he reverted back to the role of provider to turn the tie back on its head. Stepping into a pocket of space on the right and buying himself an extra split-second with a chop inside, he picked out Seedorf at the edge of the area and the Dutchman nutmegged Van Buyten before rippling the bottom corner. Four minutes later, Seedorf flicked a back-heel through for Inzaghi to whip the ball around Oliver Kahn and book a ticket for the semi-finals.
The first leg, against Manchester United at Old Trafford, was possibly Kaká’s magnum opus. Finding and manipulating space seemingly at will, his first goal was a good one – one touch to burst past the line of defence, another to thread the ball through the eye of the needle between Edwin van der Sar’s outstretched leg and the far post – but his second was an act of sheer brutal artistry.
Chasing a long ball towards the left wing, he outmuscled Darren Fletcher and nodded the ball on, bursting away from the Scotsman and directing the ball back inside. From there, he flicked the ball over Gabriel Heinze and ghosted around the Argentine before stooping to nudge the ball on with his head once more. He knocked it on again with pinpoint accuracy through the spot where Heinze and Patrice Evra were converging, breezing in a wide arc around them as the defenders collided.
From a spot on the left flank with three defenders between himself and the goal, Kaká had earned himself a luxuriant amount of time and space in the penalty area and capitalised on it, defining what a finish should look like with one smooth, languorous stroke of the ball past Van der Sar and into the net.
Goals from Wayne Rooney and, more ominously for Milan’s star man, Ronaldo meant United took a 3-2 advantage into the second leg, but there was little chance of the Rossoneri letting a shot at a second final in three seasons pass by in their own cauldron of footballing romance, the San Siro.
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Glistening under the floodlights in driving rain, it only took the world’s best player 11 minutes to hole United below the waterline with a pinpoint half-volley from the edge of the area. Another technically superb strike, it set Milan on their way to a 3-0 drubbing and Kaká raised his arms aloft in recognition of his divine inspiration. Seedorf and Alberto Gilardino completed the rout with unstoppable finishes of their own, and Milan packed their bags for a return to Athens in the final.
Kaká didn’t find the net against Liverpool this time around but he sizzled throughout. He went close to opening the scoring with an early long-range sighter, left John Arne Riise for dead with an age-restricted spin and flick in midfield and tapped through a simple pass for Inzaghi to kill the game with his second poached effort of the match. Milan had redemption for Istanbul, and Kaká dropped to his knees in thanks, revealing the iconic ‘I Belong to Jesus’ undershirt in an image which will likely define his career.
Of course, he isn’t the first religious footballer to profess their talent as a gift from the heavens. But as Qatari oil tightens its grip on the people’s game and its two most otherworldly talents struggle to shake off tax fraud allegations, the life and career of a man who left the award proclaiming him the finest footballer on the planet at a São Paulo evangelical church stands as an example of what sportsmen can be.
A frequent donor to various charities, a man who has heralded family and faith as the balancing forces which have kept him grounded in a lifetime spent in a reluctant spotlight, Kaká has always attempted to project a genuine image of himself to the world. One Brazilian journalist, who has followed his career from his nascence at São Paulo, described him as “just a really nice guy … in a profession of arseholes.”
That isn’t a slight on the new breed making their way at the top level of the game. There are certainly positive and endearing personalities shining through from the youthful, dad-defying fun of Paul Pogba to the infectious hard-working enthusiasm of N’Golo Kanté. But Kaká was simply something else – not only the finest footballer on the planet but the lovely young man you could take home to meet your mother, help your brother make up the numbers at six-a-side, and take your grandmother to church the next morning. In a time of excess and über-competitiveness, he is a reminder that football can be a showcase for the best of us.