Andy Mitten

Kaka could find old magic back at Milan

Andy Mitten

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The former World Player of the Year has been told to find another club

Rivaldo peered down over Barcelona from the 18th floor of the Princess Sofia hotel close to Camp Nou. It was a decade ago and the world's player of the moment was asked about any up-and-coming Brazilians.

"There's a young guy who plays for Sao Paulo called Kaka who plays just behind the front two. You don't know anything about him in Europe, but watch him if he is chosen for the World Cup."

Rivaldo's 2002 recommendation came as a surprise. Kaka was in many ways his antithesis and Rivaldo had just spoken passionately about discrimination in Brazil and the gulf in living standards between his impoverished upbringing in the north-east of the country and the luxury enjoyed by the metropolitan set of Sao Paulo.

Rivaldo was from a background so poor that he walked a 15-mile round trip to training as a youngster. In contrast Kaka, the son of an engineer father and a mother who taught maths, was raised in Sao Paulo among the opulent Paulista villas of the middle classes. And Kaka was a potential rival, playing in the same position. Indeed, when Kaka made his World Cup debut it was at Rivaldo's expense for the final 18 minutes of a 2002 group game against Costa Rica.

Kaka would be as good as Rivaldo said. Better, even. Just a year later he had replaced Rivaldo for his country - and would do the same for his club. Unselfishly, Rivaldo had also recommended that his then club, Milan, buy Kaka. Though Chelsea also made a bid, Kaka moved to the San Siro for £6 million, after three seasons in Sao Paulo's first team. The slight 6'1 newcomer would elbow both Rivaldo and the sublime Rui Costa to the sidelines.

"He is simply extraordinary," shrugged Costa.

By 2004, Kaka came joint 10th with Wayne Rooney for the FIFA World Player of the Year award, a position which improved every year until he won a clean sweep of the Ballon d'Or, FIFA World Player of the Year and several other individual awards in 2007. Kaka was an integral part of a great Milan side of the mid-noughties.

"Brazilians said that Kaka played like greats such as Rai, Zico or Rivaldo," said Milan coach Carlo Ancelotti, "but Kaka reminds me of Platini."  Pele opined that Kaka was the new Johan Cruyff while Zico said he reminded him of Socrates.

Although comfortable playing anywhere in midfield and either side of a main striker, Kaka usually led Milan's five-man midfield positioned behind Andriy Shevchenko.

"I don't know whether he's the best player Milan have had in my time here," remarked club president Silvio Berlusconi, "but I've never seen a player so young do the things he does for us."

Milan fans loved him. "For a couple of years he was the greatest player on earth," recalls hardcore Milan fan Alexio Biacchi.

So Milan fans were distraught when he left for Real Madrid for what was briefly a world-record fee of £56m in 2009, especially as he'd told them he was staying. That fee was shattered a few weeks later when Cristiano Ronaldo became his team-mate.

"It was a shock because AC Milan, even before Berlusconi's era, never sold its greatest players," says Biacchi. "People like Gianni Rivera, Nils Liedholm, Cesare Maldini or Franco Baresi spent all their career with the club. So when Milan sold Kaka just for business reasons, it was the first time and was like being back in school when your childhood girlfriend leaves you for a guy with a bigger car. You basically feel she's an insensitive bitch."

Kaka's stock was at an all-time high. It has since plummeted. I interviewed him for the first time a year after his move to Madrid and just before the 2010 World Cup where he picked up a knee injury. He was charming, intelligent, with the good looks that made him an Armani model. He wasn't quite the bibles-over-babes saint some had portrayed him either. I was about to go to an island with my Brazilian wife where he'd often visited and asked him for some tips.

"You are going to Florianopolis with a girl?" he said with mock disgust. "No boys go to Floripa with a girl! It's full of girls."

Meanwhile Kaka's own wife, socialite Caroline Celico, had given hints that things were not working out in Madrid — ill-advised, spur of the moment comments online in support of her husband. Everyone could see it anyway. While Ronaldo got better and better and even better, Kaka was injury ravaged, his normally serene confidence shot.

In each of his three seasons so far in Spain, he never started more than 25 games when Ronaldo was starting over 50. In his five seasons in Milan, he'd never failed to start less than 30 league games.

As Madrid finally superseded Barcelona last season to win a first title since 2008, Kaka found himself on the bench in the biggest games. When they beat Barça at Camp Nou in April, Kaka didn't even get on the pitch as Ronaldo starred. It wasn't just injuries. Kaka looked at times to be struggling with the burdens of over-expectation and stinging criticism. The king of Milan was not even a prince in Madrid.

Speculation has linked him with a move away and on Monday lunchtime, he met his coach Jose Mourinho to talk about his role in the side this season. Alongside him were his father and agent. The 45-minute meeting did not go well with Mourinho telling him "You'll be a substitute, look for another team."

Kaka earns a little more than £7m net a year. That puts him among football's A list of top earners. That's a lot of money to pay for a sub and given that his contract runs until 2015, a lot of money Madrid are contracted to pay. That's why they need to cut their losses.

Madrid won't come close to clawing back the fee they spent and will accept a third of that for the 30-year-old. Milan fans, who are outraged after seeing their team sell Thiago Silva and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, could do with a lift. Could it come from Kaka returning, despite Milan claiming they don't have the money?

"Sheva (Shevchenko) was a painful comeback and we are quite afraid that Kaka would never be again the marvellous player we have seen between 2004 and 2008," says Biacchi.

"But right now we are desperate. After Ibra and Thiago's transfers to PSG we feel betrayed and shocked and desperately need some quality."

"There are plenty of others player we would like to see playing for Milan before Kaka like Tevez, but there's also somehow a romantic and epic side, the old tale of the prodigal son coming back home searching for forgiveness and new glory. A story which it's getting harder and harder to believe in."

Who knows if Kaka will be offered the opportunity or if he will take it, but surely it is too soon to write off a player with so many gifts?

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