KAKA gestures during his interview with Dawn on Saturday.—Shakil Adil/White Star
KAKA gestures during his interview with Dawn on Saturday.—Shakil Adil/White Star

THERE was a time, more than a decade ago, when Kaka was at the absolute peak of his powers on the football pitch. Then, time used to come to a standstill when the Brazilian had the ball at his feet. It still does two years after he quit playing, even when he doesn’t have the ball.

There was chaos all around. Time was limited, the requests too high. Yet, Kaka was calm as ever. In Karachi, for an exhibition match later on Saturday, Kaka had just finished a press conference when he was taken into another room through a crowd of journalists in a narrow corridor of a plush hotel queuing up for his interview.

At these testing times, even the best-laid plans go up in the air. Despite being on a tight schedule, Kaka was calm as ever; seemingly with all the time in the world. Just like in his heyday, when he could pick a perfectly-weighted pass through a packed defence while being on his trademark runs from the centre of the park.

Off the pitch, he has the same elegance that he had in his stride. Put a question to him and he will come up with a perfectly eloquent answer.

“I never thought I could be the best player in the world,” the 2007 FIFA World Player of the Year told Dawn in an interview set up by the organisers of the World Soccer Stars exhibition tour.

“My dream was to first play for [Brazilian giants] Sao Paulo and play a game for the Brazil national team. But of course when you start to play and things start happening for you, you set your targets higher. But after one good season at AC Milan, I started thinking maybe I could be the best in the world but it was not something I’d aimed for. Everything just fell into place.”

Upon joining Milan in 2003, Kaka was expected to be an understudy to fellow Brazilian Rivaldo and Portugal’s Manuel Rui Costa. So good he was that within months, Rivaldo and Rui Costa were behind him in the pecking order.

His stock kept rising and it was the 2006-07 season when Kaka showed the world he was head and shoulders above the rest. Milan won the UEFA Champions League with Kaka leading the way, scoring a whopping 10 goals from his attacking midfield position.

By then, he’d already won the biggest prize in international football. Kaka was part of Brazil’s 2002 FIFA World Cup-winning squad, an even though he played just 25 minutes during their victorious campaign, he holds that memory close to his heart.

“It was special [even if I played little] as I was only 20 years old at that time,” he said.

However, both Kaka and Brazil came up short in 2006 when they arguably had the best squad ever, featuring then reigning FIFA World Player of the Year Ronaldinho, Ronaldo and Adriano in a fearsome foursome up top.

“We had a very, very good team with almost all the players in their prime but we didn’t prepare well so we didn’t increase our chances [of winning]. That is why football is so beautiful. You don’t know what can happen and talent is not enough. You also realise how hard it is to win a World Cup.”

Kaka’s final World Cup appearance came in 2010, where he was expected to spearhead the side but by then Brazil had lost some of their big names and they went out at the quarter-final stage to losing finalists Netherlands.

A year before the World Cup, Kaka had briefly become the world’s most expensive player when he joined Real Madrid from Milan; the transfer record broken when Cristiano Ronaldo joined the Spanish giants the same summer from Manchester United.

At Real, though, Kaka was a shadow of the player he was at Milan. Gone was acceleration, with which he glided past defenders. The strength with which he brushed off defenders too deserted him. At Real, there were only flashes of his pacy, powerful runs from the deep.

Injuries did play a part but he holds no regrets about joining Real or about leaving a Milan side that was at that time one of the best in Europe.

“At the time I left, man of the Milan greats were coming to the end of their careers,” he said. “Milan were changing the team and they opened the door for me to go. Before, they didn’t sell players. If you wanted to leave, you had to hold a [press] conference and say you wanted to leave.

“[Andriy] Shevchenko did that. He said he wanted to go to Chelsea [in 2006] and he left. But my case was different. Milan said it was time to change the philosophy and they needed to sell some players. I had this offer from Manchester City and six months later, there was another offer [from Real] and Milan said we should sell.

“The four years in Madrid were really amazing,” he added. “The experience of playing for Real is incredible so I’m happy I had that experience. It was not only important for my career but also for my life.”

At Real, there is also unmatched pressure to perform. And he feels for his teenaged compatriots Rodrygo and Vinicius Junior.

The 18-year-old Rodrygo, who came to Real in the close season this year, became the second youngest Real player to score a hat-trick when he netted a treble against Galatasaray in the Champions League earlier this week.

Vinicius, 19, meanwhile, broke through last season but has since struggled for a place in Real’s starting line-up of late.

“This is my personal opinion that it was too young [for them to join Real],” he said. “Not just Rodrygo, also Vinicius. And I’m not talking about them joining Real but about these youngsters being sold so early to European clubs. The deal for Rodrygo was done when he was 17.

“In my opinion its better if they stay in Brazil and then go to a different environment. In Europe, it’s a different environment, completely different. The pressure, the responsibility is too high. It’s better if you go to Europe when you’re more mature.”

He feels the talent drain at that young age is affecting the Brazil national team. Brazil won the Copa America this year but the current side isn’t the same as the slick sides of the past.

“It’s really hard to say why Brazil haven’t won a World Cup after 2002,” said Kaka. “I think with these players leaving at such an early age, the national team lost its identity. We don’t have an identity because these players leave at 16 and 17 and they develop a different identity, a different philosophy. Some go to Europe, some go to Asia and when you put them together, it’s all from different backgrounds.”

After his spell at Real, Kaka went back to Milan for a season before joining Major League Soccer side Orlando City, where he played for three years before calling it quits.

Now, he’s looking to his future in the game. He’s enrolled in UEFA’s Executive Master for International Players programme where he’s studying football business. He’s following in on the footsteps of former Brazilian midfielders Rai, a 1994 World Cup winner, and Juninho Pernambucano who graduated in 2017 from the first batch and are now sporting directors of Sao Paulo and Olympique Lyonnais respectively.

Could Kaka take up a similar role in the near future? “I just started the programme, and just attended the first week so we can talk about it in two years,” he said. “It’s also for me to understand what I want to do. If I can do something in football, then why not.

“Most of the players think there are only two options after retiring: coaching or becoming a sporting director. But then you see there are so many other possibilities to stay in football, on the field, off the field or close to football.”

Expect to see Kaka in a football role soon. Whether he’s on the touchline or in a boardroom, time still comes to a standstill for him. Consider this: the interview with him took just six minutes.

Published in Dawn, November 10th, 2019