A little less than ten minutes to go for the half-time whistle, your club’s injury-wrecked first-eleven is battling for every inch against the magicians from Milan, the early advantage cancelled out with an away goal, you stand mesmerized as the lanky Brazilian donning the No 22 shirt traps a long ball on the left flank, outmuscles Darren Fletcher and waltzes into the box with a suave move which leaves two of your defenders, Patrice Evra and Gabriel Heinze, in a collision with each other, stroking a lavish finish past an outstretched Edwin van der Sar.
As the Brazilian throws his arms up into the air thanking his beloved Jesus, in a repeat of his trademark celebrations, you realize your team is trailing by two away goals in the first leg of a UEFA Champions League semi-final, yet cannot help but revel in the sheer resplendence of this charismatic playmaker – even the staunchest of Manchester United supporters at the Stretford End that night would testify to Ricardo Izecson dos Santos Leite’s magnum opus.
The night would not end well for the 25-year-old Brazilian, for AC Milan would go onto lose 3-2, but even a decade later, anybody who witnessed that game would readily acknowledge that the Brazilian was carving the pinnacle of his footballing career in that match and the next 180 minutes in the competition — leading AC Milan to their seventh European Cup/UEFA Champions League.
Born to a civil engineer father and a school teacher mother, Ricardo’s journey to professional football was as unconventional as his nickname — his younger brother called him Kaka as he couldn’t pronounce his formal name — and that was the name with which he would be revered across the globe, as much for his footballing abilities as for his humility and grace.
Dabbling in tennis in his formative years, Kaka’s initiation into football was at a later age than his compatriots — discovered by Sau Paulo FC when he was in middle school, a vertebral fracture in a freakish swimming pool accident at the age of eighteen not only threatened his footballing dreams, but also his ability to walk and lead a normal life. Yet, just two years later, he lifted the 2002 FIFA World Cup alongside Brazil’s golden generation of the new millennium.
Hailing from an urban middle-class family in Brazil, a country constantly plagued with economic and political upheavals, Kaka’s rise was unlike other Brazilian superstars’ ‘rags-to-riches’ stories, but no less dramatic in any sense. Arriving in Milan as a World Cup medallist, Kaka didn’t need much time to capture the imagination of European football fans, playing a crucial role in Milan’s 2003-04 Scudetto triumph.
A creative playmaker in the truest sense, Kaka’s tenacity for perfection and industriousness underlined his sublime ball-playing skills. Comfortable on either foot, equally precise in long-range shots and close control, Kaka’s surging runs through the midfield with the ball at his feet, leaving opposition defenders in his wake, always gave an impression of a majestic bird gliding through.
One would never expect an ostentatious showboating move from Kaka, yet his breathtakingly elegant touches almost always unlocked the fiercest of defences — his vision to find a teammate with an exquisite throughball following a thirty-yard run was a product of his immaculate blend of poise and panache. Not only could Kaka command the ball at his will, but he could essentially change the tempo of a game with an effortless attacking manoeuvre.
Just as he was while creating chances, he was brutally nimble in front of the goal, always managing to find the right spot and striking the ball with just the necessary amount of power. Even in matches when he did not find the net, he sizzled throughout — like he did against Liverpool in a 2-1 victory in the 2007 UEFA Champions League final. Kaka finished as the Champions League top scorer that season, eventually winning the FIFA Club World Cup and the coveted FIFA Ballon d’Or later that year. Quite fittingly, one would presume, as Kaka was mounting the throne of the best footballer on the planet, AC Milan were orchestrating their final swansong before plunging into the darkest of pits the Italian club has ever witnessed in all its years.
While Kaka’s haul of individual platitudes came in 2007, it was his initial years in San Siro, a period which many fondly remember not only as the glorious years for the Rossoneri, but also when Kaka embraced his destiny with unmatched elan. In the Battle of Istanbul, when Liverpool famously came back from the brink to snatch a win, it was Kaka’s supreme brilliance in the first half which had put Milan on the pedestal that Liverpool eventually seized.
Such was Kaka’s influence that Carlos Pereira designed a 4-2-2-2 system to fit him in a Brazil side filled with superstars while Manchester City were ready to shatter the world transfer record with a 100m bid long before big money transfers were the norm in European football.
The aftermaths of the Calciopoli scandal meant Kaka eventually had to secure a move away from the club where he had hoped “to grow old”, sacrificing himself for the club’s greater good, but a knee injury doomed his Real Madrid days into a mere shadow of his former self. A string of injuries not only affected his selection chances, but the artistic Brazilian was left behind in the constantly evolving tactical setup of the Los Galacticos. Thirty-seven goals and a La Liga title later, Kaka would once again return to AC Milan but the tide had turned, the ship had sailed and Kaka never again came even close to eclipsing his former feats in Italy.
A spell in Sao Paulo and a two-year stint at Orlando City rounded out Kaka’s club career, in what would be an underwhelming and an early end to the career of one of the most sensational playmakers to ever grace the football pitch. It was, however, characteristic of the down-to-earth, soft-spoken Kaka who only reluctantly embraced the spotlight shone on him, for the footballer Kaka has always been an epitome of the person Ricardo Izecson dos Santos Leite is.
"He is an extremely calm and composed boy who is never prone to either euphoria or depression. He is a great champion,” Carlo Ancelotti perfectly summarized.
A religious Christian, who has whole-heartedly dedicated all his triumphs to the Almighty, the iconic ‘I Belong to Jesus’ undershirt Kaka sported after the 2007 UEFA Champions League win was not the only symbol of his faith, for he donated his Ballon d’Or to an evangelical church in Sao Paulo.
Throughout his career, there have been numerous illustrations of his charitable efforts, his conduct and his humble nature and it is this simplicity in his personality and his playing style, which appealed to the football-loving masses. Kaka once graciously admitted that he was the last player born on the planet to have won the Ballon D’Or, acknowledging the sheer stupendousness of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, but what is rarely recognized is that Kaka was the last playmaker of this generation whose achievements could not be measured by mere statistical computations.
Years from now, when a football enthusiast looks back in the early twenty-first century, Kaka would rightly be deemed as the bridge between the flamboyance of Ronaldinho and the logic-defying plaudits of Messi and Ronaldo.
Amongst the array of modern footballers, where virtuosity and ego go hand in hand, where mammoth wages no longer raise an eyebrow, Kaka belonged to a rare breed — one who achieved his potential for his love for the beautiful game, and not to rewrite the history. In a world of Neymars and Paul Pogbas, Kaka may be a misfit, but the endearing, timeless football that Ricardo Izecson dos Santos Leite showcased will forever be his legacy.
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Updated Date: Dec 18, 2017 18:14:58 IST