A seminal moment can be defined as “a highly original moment influencing a future state” or “a time-lapse where something life-altering occurs.” Fluid definitions for fluid moments; when something almost intangible happens and those who observe it are certain they have played witness to a moment which will have future implications. They don’t know what those implications are, but they are certain that somehow the world is a slightly different place now.
Around the midpoint of the 2000s, Ricardo Izecson dos Santos Leite provided such a moment, in the midst of one of the greatest football matches of all time. As the clock ticked towards half-time, at 20:29 BST, our protagonist received the ball with his back to goal, midway in his own half.
Allowing the ball to roll through his legs, with a mere touch with his right heel straightening the direction the ball was travelling and away from the man in red, he wondered where the number 22 had gone. The elegant attacking midfielder was now facing goal, took five impossibly long yet quick strides and, with his next touch, played a pass from the halfway line that bisected three opposing players.
Arriving at the foot of his teammate on the 18-yard line, the ball was lifted into the goal. Three touches; 3-0 up. The 23-year-old had announced himself to the world in the biggest match in club football. The 2005 Champions League final is remembered as the greatest comeback in the tournament’s history. For this writer, and not I alone, it was the game that announced Kaká and his effortless brilliance to the world.
It has become a well-rehearsed mantra that Kaká was the last man to win the Ballon d’Or before the dominance of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. Indeed, he is a player who links the pre-social media generation of Ronaldo, Zidane and Del Piero with the inane Twitter debates posted by Generation Z fans who engage in prosaic online GOAT arguments ad infinitum. Kaká sits right in the sweet spot of copious HD YouTube clips, but not as a candidate of the banal, irrelevant stat-busting dissection of who is the greatest of all.
Kaká’s career was very nearly over before it had even begun. Aged 18, the sure-footed, prodigious talent slipped on the side of a swimming pool. The fall resulted in a broken vertebra, doctors informing him that he was lucky to be walking again. But, for a man whose faith was unshakably placed in the divine, Kaká saw it as God’s will that he recovered and would go on to play the game that he loved, commenting, “It is faith that decides whether something will happen or not.”
Kaká’s playing career started at São Paulo, but this was not the story of a boy from the favelas battling his way past social injustices to make a better life for himself and his family. Kaká was born to supportive middle-class parents who would drive the talented teenager to training. The lack of an archetypal story of poverty did nothing to dampen the innate desire of the man born in Gama. With his brother Diãgo – responsible for the moniker Kaká, because he couldn’t pronounce Ricardo – the brothers would use their privileged upbringing to focus on their education and a career in football.
Just months after Kaká’s career-threatening injury, in February 2001, São Paulo gave the 18-year-old his senior debut. The youngster scored 12 goals in 27 appearances during that first season. It was a campaign that saw him help his side to their only Torneio Rio-São Paulo. Two goals in two minutes after coming on as a substitute in the final against Botafogo ensured that his was literally a match-winning performance.
The following season’s performances proved to be just as consistent, but this time Kaká’s endeavours were starting to draw attention from the Old World. Europe’s superpowers had now fully established a one-way trade route from South American shores to the world’s biggest clubs. Ten goals in 22 matches caught the attention of AC Milan.
A reputed €8.5m was all it took Silvio Berlusconi to lure away São Paulo’s prized asset, who by now also had a World Cup winners medal to his name, despite only playing 25 minutes against Costa Rica in 2002. As the gentle, mild-mannered disciple of God made his way across the Atlantic towards one of the toughest and most physical leagues in the world, shadowy voices questioned whether the Brazilian could adapt.
Within a month, Kaká was starting in Milan’s first team, finding himself in the traditional number 10 role. Milan’s 22 was at the heart of all that was good at the San Siro. Indeed, a debut season saw him lift a Scudetto and the UEFA Super Cup.
By his sophomore campaign, Kaká was firmly established in Italy and beyond. Playing in a midfield that blended silk and steel to perfection, Gennaro Gattuso and Massimo Ambrosini provided the protection along, with Clarence Seedorf doing much of the running. The guile, if not the attacking legs, came from Rui Costa and Andrea Pirlo. By now, Kaká had adopted an all-action style of play characterised by electrifying pace, an ability to ghost past opponents with perceptive ease, laser-guided passing over a range of distances, and a penchant for spectacular goals.
Kaká, at just 23, was becoming the best player in the world. His second season culminated in the schadenfreude moment of the aforementioned Champions League final. Three goals to the good at half-time, with the Brazilian seemingly coasting towards a first continental glory, Kaká was dominating. His stunning assist for Hernán Crespo’s second goal summed up his talent perfectly, even if Kaká and the Rossoneri were to be found on the receiving end of a Liverpool miracle.
The 2006/07 season would prove to be one of redemption for Kaká and Milan as they gained revenge for their 2005 Champions League defeat, beating Liverpool 2-1 in Athens. Once more, Kaká’s image was imprinted all over the final, winning the free-kick for the first goal and supplying the pass to Filippo Inzaghi for Milan’s winner.
The now-familiar vest with the words “I belong to Jesus” was revealed at full-time and a statement of allegiance to the almighty was now being reinforced with the words “God is faithful” stitched to the tongues of his boots. Kaká was at the peak of his powers, with a plethora of natural gifts seemingly bestowed upon him by The Father, The Son and The Holy Spirit.
On 2 December 2007, he received the Ballon d’Or ahead of Ronaldo and Messi. At that point, nobody could have foreseen the ensuing dominance of the two runners-up, or a failure to secure a second award on Kaká’s part, such was his influence and talent within club football.
Post-2007’s dominance of Europe and all the individual honours the game had to offer, Kaká remained a unique talent, but injuries were beginning to erode away at the edges of his prodigious talent. However, it wasn’t enough to stop Manchester City and all their millions from tabling a bid for Kaká to become the first £100m footballer. For three days in January 2009, the prospect of Kaká doing it against Stoke on a wet and windy Tuesday night seemed possible.
Eventually the world jolted back on to its axis and, six months later, Real Madrid bought the Brazilian for a world record £56m. The ink was barely dry on the contract when Los Blancos purchased Cristiano Ronaldo for £80m. For Kaká, there was to be no price-tag-related pressure and expectations.
He performed adequately at the Bernabéu without ever achieving the heights he hit with unbelievable regularity at the San Siro. The injuries gradually became worse and his time on the sidelines became longer. Eventually, a return to his beloved Milan came to end his ineffectual time in Madrid. Whilst it may be easy for his detractors to dismiss Kaká as a one-season wonder, he was anything but.
For nearly the entire first decade of the 21st century, Kaká was the most elegant, balletic and graceful footballer going. Humility, movie star looks and an unbreakable faith and devotion to a higher power in his heart, Kaká was the player who linked the careers of both Ronaldos, though he couldn’t have been more different to either. Indeed, he is one of only eight players in history to have won the World Cup, the Champions League and the Ballon d’Or. Unfortunately, he never belonged to us. Nevertheless, so great were his gifts, football could not help but praise him on high.
By Stuart Horsfield @loxleymisty44