For a brief period of time, Ricardo Kaka was the best footballer in the world.
The Brazil playmaker was recognised as such at the 2007 Ballon d’Or ceremony, beating Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi—two players who would dominate the awards for the next decade—by huge margins.
It was hard to keep up with Kaka’s many achievements that year.
Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi win the Ballon d'Or every year now, but I could beat them back then.
For me that’s the highest form of recognition. I had the best opponents, I’m deeply honoured."
– Ricardo Kaka came in first for Ballon d'Or 2007 with 444 votes, 167 more than Cristiano Ronaldo (277) and 189 more than Lionel Messi (255)
With Milan, he won the 2006/07 Champions League, the 2007 Super Cup and the 2007 Club World Cup. That Milan side boasted some great players, but Kaka was their heartbeat, their driving force.
As well as scooping virtually every ‘footballer of the year’ contest in existence, the playmaker’s 10 European goals—including that one against Man Utd—also made him the Champions League’s top scorer.
At the Ballon d’Or ceremony, Pele explained why Kaka’s achievements dwarfed those of Messi and Ronaldo.
The goal against Man Utd at Old Trafford was probably my best.
Not just because of the way it's scored—sometimes I watch it again and don't know how I did all that—but because of its importance. It was a Champions League semi-final. It was amazing."
– At his peak, Kaka was a divine concoction of flawless technique, Greek-statue physicality, and rapier-like speed
“Kaka has been playing at this level for club and country for four years now,” Pele said. “He influences games from midfield, he carries his influence off the pitch as a great role model as well. He is the complete player.”
Kaka was something of a dying breed: An all-action No 10, the Brazilian was a central attacking midfielder who consistently scored and provided goals for his team. Where goalscoring wide forwards have since dominated the Ballon d’Or, Kaka played through the middle, using his pace and skill to move the ball from midfield to attack, effecting the desired consequences.
In the words of of Zinedine Zidane, “A rare piece of talent”.
Ricardo Kaka plays with a natural clarity prone to neither euphoria nor depression.
He's always calm and composed, always attacking with clear intent, never losing his focus and never taking the extra, unnecessary touch. He's a pure champion."
– Carlos Ancelotti made Kaka his chief No 10 among Milan's mythical midfield along Rui Costa, Andrea Pirlo, and Clarence Seedorf
And yet, if one views Kaka’s achievements through a hypercritical lens, one could see him as something of a nearly man.
Outside of the landmark 2006/07 campaign, Kaka’s three biggest trophies are: One Serie A title with Milan, one La Liga title with Real Madrid—for whom he played a minor role—and the 2002 World Cup with Brazil. He played just 18 minutes at that tournament.
Nor is the playmaker’s prestige aided by historical context.
I was happiest when Brazil won the 2002 World Cup. I was young and only played a segment of one match, but it was incredible to be part of that great team. One of my biggest regrets is we couldn't do it again despite having another magical team in 2006.
To win the World Cup at home is the dream of every Brazilian."
– Kaka earned 92 caps, 29 goals, a World Cup, and 2 Confederations Cups with Brazil
In reaching the peak of his powers shortly before the dominance of Messi and Ronaldo, Kaka can be considered something akin to the Sega Dreamcast of footballers: A much-hyped product that was the best in its category for a fleeting moment but which soon appeared inferior and overpriced relative to the competition.
Kaka offered bright colours, but Messi and Ronaldo—the Playstation 2 and Xbox in this analogy—would soon be rendering polygons in unprecedented quantities.
The Brazilian might have also played a part in relinquishing his throne.
I remember how badly we took it as a team when Ricardo Kaka left Milan. For two or three years he was the best player in the world.
There was a point when teams just had no idea how to stop him."
– Andrea Pirlo holds Kaka as the best central attacking midfielder he has ever played with or against
To honour @KAKA's retirement and world class, we have chosen 🔟 of his top beauties in the 🔴⚫— AC Milan (@acmilan) December 18, 2017
Vote the best goal! 👉🏻 https://t.co/MmAgoLwNvT
Per celebrare l'addio al calcio giocato di Kaká, abbiamo scelto 🔟 sue magie in 🔴⚫
Vota il miglior gol! 👉🏻 https://t.co/b4rsnuWldj pic.twitter.com/1dyMGkZiwE
Kaka was at his prime in the immediate seasons following his Ballon d’Or win. Despite injuries, Kaka registered his best Milan goalscoring record over 2007/08 and his 2008/09 started equally well.
In January 2009, a wild news came out of the blue: Kaka was to become the world’s first nine-figure footballer. Man City had tabled a record bid of around £100 million, and Milan could not refuse.
Of course, Kaka never made it to Manchester. The move broke down in late January, and Kaka was famously photographed brandishing a Milan jersey from an upstairs window of his house.
Milan never considered any offer for me in the past. This time it was different, I had to think about it.
I prayed a lot, Man City sounded like a good project, in the end God decided for me to stay."
– Kaka's aborted transfer to Man City was a choice of faith and fate
City could not convince the Brazilian to sign on the dotted line—not with wages of £500,000 per week nor with the chance to spearhead its shiny new project following the Abu Dhabi United Group takeover—and Kaka would move to Real Madrid less than five months after rejecting Man City.
Upon joining the Spanish giants for £55 million in June 2009, a 27-year-old Kaka became the world’s most expensive footballer. Just weeks later, however, Cristiano Ronaldo smashed that record, and the celebrity status of the Portuguese quickly overshadowed that of the Brazilian.
Things went the same way on the pitch: Ronaldo became a Madrid legend, while Kaka played a bit-part role over four seasons before eventually heading back to Milan for a brief reprise of his glory days.
My problem at Real Madrid was continuity. I spent three years trying everything to convince Jose Mourinho I deserved more opportunities.
In the end it was his choice—it was out of my control."
– Kaka never did hit the heights as a Galactico during what should have been his prime years
Kaka’s final cap for Brazil came in 2016, a 2–0 win over Panama in which the one-time Ballon d’Or winner got a 10-minute run-out substituting Philippe Coutinho.
That Kaka wore No 7 and Coutinho No 22 on that occasion served to highlight the respect, and perhaps sentimental attachment, that then–Brazil coach Dunga held for his elder playmaker.
And that seems to be how most people remember Kaka: Not so much with boundless reverence—though they probably would if not for the achievements of Messi and Ronaldo—but with the utmost respect and admiration.
My football career turned out to be much more than I could ever imagined.
I'm beyond thankful. I’m now ready for the next chapter."
– Since retiring in 2017, Kaka has taken up football administration with a view to return and serve Milan, his second home
The famously God-loving Brazilian did not play with attitude or negativity. He appeared grateful for every moment, seeming to cherish football as much as fans ended up cherishing him. Along with his talents, it was a good recipe for popularity.
Maybe, however, Kaka was simply too happy with his lot, too quick to be thankful for everyone and everything, too content to apply himself on the Madrid training pitch instead of pushing for a move—Man City or otherwise—to revive his career.
The prince of Milan will forever be loved, but he could have ruled the world a little longer.