The words that are about to follow do not represent the collective editorial opinion of Managing Madrid's writing staff. In all honesty, they are simply my attempts to come to grips with the conclusion of a footballing relationship that I wish could've received a Hollywood ending. Sadly, the partnership between Real Madrid and Brazilian midfielder Kaká ends not with Kaká scoring a title-winning goal or assisting Cristiano Ronaldo in the Champions League final, but with the player departing the club after being booed by his home crowd in what turned out to be his final match at the Santiago Bernabéu Stadium.
Originally, I started this column by strictly breaking down Kaká's timeline with Los Blancos and recounting the highs and lows of his tenure in Madrid, but frankly, that felt both uninspiring and unoriginal. I did not want to write another article summarizing Kaká's games since his performances have been well-documented in the sporting press. Instead, I decided to analyze my personal evolution as a Kaká fan throughout different stages of his career in the hopes of reconciling my Real Madrid fandom with the heart-wrenching realization that my favorite player ultimately never lived up to the Bernabéu's high standards.
The Story Begins
The year I graduated from high school, Kaká reached the pinnacle of world football by receiving the FIFA World Player of the Year Award and the Ballon D'Or. He'd just won the Champions League with AC Milan after dismantling Manchester United in the semifinals and avenging Milan's 2005 loss to Liverpool in the championship match. I liked Kaká, but I can't say I consistently watched his Serie A games. Watching matches online was not an option and my household lacked the channels broadcasting the Italian league. Therefore, as a high schooler, Kaká really caught my attention wearing Brazil's biggest cultural export, the yellow shirt of the Canarinho in the 2006 World Cup.
While the 2006 team featured the likes of Ronaldo, Roberto Carlos and Ronaldinho, Kaká's style immediately appealed to me (which is not to say I don't adore the other players). The reason for it, as I'll embarrassingly admit, lies in my own limited talent as a soccer player. You see, whenever I chose a favorite player growing up, regardless of the sport they played, I'd typically go for a player that possessed a skill-set or style that I could try to emulate.
While in college, I decided to take up soccer once again after having focused specifically on cross-country/track and field during high school. Needless to say, I was rusty. I took to YouTube to watch videos of other greats like Cristiano Ronaldo, Ronaldinho and David Beckham, but there was no way I could feasibly teach myself those bewildering dribbling skills and dead-ball techniques as a full-time college student with various other commitments. I needed to simplify, but I also needed a player whose game I could study and imitate. Enter Kaká.
Kaká and I seemingly shared a few characteristics in common, or at least that's what I liked telling myself. We both possessed a shockingly incompetent way of playing defense (you know the tall guy on the pitch that gets nutmegged a few times a game? That was me). On the flip side, though, whenever I played soccer, I'd be consumed with childish joy whenever I'd receive a pass and find myself with space to charge towards goal. It was in those moments that I'd try to turn on the jets, Kaká-style. I couldn't pull off fancy dribbles like my other idol Cristiano, but my cross-country background lent itself to lots of running, so that become the foundation for my "game." Anyone who watched Kaká in his prime can attest to how important pace was to his success (later, Messi), so naturally I looked to Ricardo as a prime of example of how to put speed to good use.
After devouring hours of YouTube clips, I couldn't help but notice an elegant simplicity and effectiveness in two other areas of Kaká's game: his finishing ability and vision. Kaká had a lethal shot from outside the box and the ability to pick-out a teammate for an easy tap-in after destabilizing the opposition with one of his trademark bursts into the area. He rarely employed tricks and flicks to get past his marker. So, given my lack of elaborate technical skills, I came to the conclusion that I would adopt his style as my model, and what began as casual admiration in 2006 unintentionally evolved into loyal fandom.
Kaká and Cristiano Ronaldo's move to Real Madrid in 2009 re-kindled a personal interest in Real Madrid that had waned since Zinedine Zidane's retirement and the subsequent departures of David Beckham and Ronaldo. I had always admired the audacity and magic of the Galácticos, so when Florentino pulled off the impossible and signed both Portuguese-speaking superstars to Real Madrid, I found myself hooked on the Whites once again.
The fanboy in me cheered and smiled at the sight of a budding friendship between Ricky and Cristiano, but it seemed we'd have to wait another season for their partnership to truly take off as both players succumbed to injuries that year. As the World Cup approached, I could not wait to see Kaká lead a younger, Confederations Cup-winning Brazil side to glory in South Africa.
I happened to be in Brazil at the time of the tournament and vividly remember the excitement I felt upon seeing Kaká assist two goals against Ivory Coast during the second group stage match. The elation was comically short-lived though as Kaká unjustly received two yellow cards to the disbelief of the football universe. From a Real Madrid fan's perspective, the expulsion was rather unfortunate- Kaká ended up missing Brazil's next game against pal Cristiano Ronaldo's Portugal.
In the quarterfinals, Brazil went into halftime with a comfortable lead only to be overrun by Netherlands in the second-half. Kaká had two promising chances to score but failed to convert both. I was devastated. The Seleção left the African continent empty-handed and Kaká departed a physically broken man. After the World Cup, I turned off my Kaká radar for a month and a half as I geared up for my senior year of college. Completely unbeknownst to me, the fate of my favorite player was about to take a turn for the worst as Real Madrid's 2010-2011 pre-season launched in Los Angeles.
Kaká began his second Real Madrid season by undergoing knee surgery to correct damage allegedly caused by an alarming muscular imbalance in his legs. While his injury was a blow, I was nonetheless excited by the arrivals of José Mourinho and Mesut Özil and mesmerized by Cristiano Ronaldo's goal-scoring prowess. I almost forgot about my Brazilian hero considering the team's positive trajectory and my lack of visits to news outlets like As and Marca, but once Kaká reappeared on the Real Madrid bench with that trademark Colgate smile, I could not help but feel excited. After Ricky scored his first post-injury goal against Diego Lopez's Villareal courtesy of a Cristiano Ronaldo assist, I was overtaken by feelings of hope and pride at what looked to be the grand return of the "Maestro." I did not hesitate in ordering Ricky's #8 jersey and felt the tide was finally turning in both Real Madrid and Kaká's favor.
Discovering Managing Madrid
After graduating from college I moved to Los Angeles and was fortunate enough to watch Real Madrid face the LA Galaxy live at the LA Coliseum. I could not wait to see Kaká and Cristiano Ronaldo do their thing, and luckily for me, neither one disappointed. As written up by Managing Madrid co-founder Gabe Lezra, Kaká put on a midfield clinic in the first half while Cristiano Ronaldo scored an unbelievably dazzling goal in the second half to the delight of pretty much everyone. All signs pointed toward a "resurrection."
Mourinho's men kicked off the 2011-2012 season in blazing fashion, and for once Kaká was no exception. It was around this time that I discovered Managing Madrid, but it would be months before I actually created an account and participated in the community's discussions. As 2011 came to a close, Kaká once again succumbed to injury and even missed his first-call up to the national team under then-manager Mano Menezes. I was admittedly bummed. When Kaká returned sometime in January he got off to a slow start; however, the injury to Ángel di María meant the Brazilian was now enjoying consecutive starts alongside Mesut Özil, with the German playmaker simplifying life for all his teammates, Kaká included. The team was playing well, and in February of 2012 I finally created the now-defunct "Pedrito89" account on Managing Madrid to join the conversation.
This step would mark an evolution in my trajectory as a Kaká fan. I found myself addicted to the cause of defending Kaká on the community threads, and while I could disagree civilly on almost any other Real Madrid topic, Kaká was the one topic that aroused illogical, blind loyalty on my part. My hero had suddenly become an underdog, but I whole-heartedly believed the day would come when he'd prove the doubters wrong and triumph at the Bernabéu. After all, the team was on a hot streak and Ricky was still scoring goals and assisting his teammates, albeit not with the same frequency and pizzazz as his AC Milan days.
Then, when Ángel di María returned from injury, Kaká was immediately relegated to the bench. In my eyes, this moment marked the beginning of the end for Kaká's Real Madrid career, though many will argue the midfielder should've left after his first season. Kaká missed the Clasico now famous for Cristiano's "CALMA" celebration and saw zero minutes against Bayern Munich in the first leg of the tie.
In the heartbreaking and unforgettable home defeat to Bayern Munich on penalties, I remember watching the shootout inside my Argentinian boss's office with a few other football-loving co-workers. It went something like this:
Neuer saves Cristiano's opening penalty. Uh-oh. Up steps Kaká. My heart pounds in my chest as adrenaline speeds through my system. He NEEDS to score this. Kaká takes a breath, approaches the ball, shoots to the bottom-left corner--his preferred penalty target--and Neuer stops it. Comfortably. The German keeper has clearly done his homework. This can't be happening. "They're going to kill him," I say to my boss.
After Ramos' field goal, I returned to my cubicle and logged on the the match thread to wallow in the defeat with my fellow Madridistas. What I found was almost unanimous anger and disappointment aimed at Kaká. My fellow fans had a point, though. When the stakes were highest, Kaká, a seasoned penalty-taker, failed to convert his chance. Even though I was just as distraught over the loss, I tried in vain to defend Kaká's shortcomings on the basis of a lack of confidence and fitness as a result of being dropped by Mourinho in the previous games. By that point, though, it was too late. The fans had spoken and there was no going back. Kaká- vete ya!
The summer of 2012 featured the usual rumor-mongering and cynicism: "Kaká is only staying for the paycheck...Kaká won't accept a pay cut...etc." While I knew in my head that Kaká no longer had a place in the Spanish capital, I insisted on at least defending his character. Having watched multiple interviews and heard first-hand accounts of his kind personality from a Brazilian connection, I firmly believed that Kaká was a virtuous person. At least that's what the evidence suggested. But I was growing antsy. Kaká needed a change of scenery, and I needed a reprieve from the emotional pendulum swings associated with being a Kaká fan.
Still, no transfer materialized, and Kaká's season got off to a horrible start as the player failed to make Mourinho's initial squad lists. Word of Kaká's two-a-days training regime made it to Brazilian coach Mano Menezes' ears, though, and the national team boss gave Kaká minutes in friendlies against Iraq, Japan and Colombia. He did not disappoint, scoring a pair of goals and combining well with Neymar and Oscar in a striker-less formation.
Unfortunately, this latest "resurrection" was not to be. Luis Felipe Scolari replaced Mano Menezes as Brazil's head coach and Kaká failed to make a lasting impact at club-level. By this point, there were no more Kaká vs. Özil or Kaká vs. di María debates to be had. The optimism and joy generated during the title-winning season had washed away, and Kaká's inclusion in Real Madrid's squad only upset Madridistas arguing that Canteranos deserved more minutes. It was hard to debate them. I had also joined Managing Madrid's writing staff around this time and made a vow to temper my Kaká fandom in the hopes of proving myself as a level-headed writer.
With the arrival of Carlo Ancelotti in Madrid, I must confess that I felt optimistic for Kaká. Ancelotti, with whom Kaká won the Champions League in 2007, would certainly provide Ricky with the opportunities and confidence he needed to shine. But when Real Madrid signed Isco, an attack-minded midfielder that would undoubtedly limit Kaká's playing time, I began to fear for Kaká's situation (again). Nonetheless, Kaká expressed optimism and hope for the season ahead and claimed Ancelotti was helping him return to peak performance. Once again, it appeared as though Kaká would remain with the club and fight for his place.
Then came the shocking announcement on Thursday, August 29, three days before the transfer market deadline, that Ricky wanted out. I could not believe it, nor did I know how to feel. I'd just watched him score two goals against Deportivo La Coruña a few minutes earlier, and though I thought there'd be no more news out of Madrid's camp that day, I was suddenly hit with an email from Managing Madrid's Editor-in-Chief, Lucas Navarrete, asking if I'd heard Kaká's statements.
After seeing Kaká's press conference, it became clear that there was no more rooting to be done when it came to Kaká with Real Madrid. Kaká wanted to play regular football, and that would never happen for him at the Santiago Bernabéu. I spent the next few days checking the press for news of a transfer, be it to AC Milan, Arsenal or Manchester United, hoping to see Kaká officially inked by one of those historic European clubs.
Finally, late Sunday night, the news arrived. Kaká would be returning "home" to AC Milan on a free transfer and 6 million Euro pay cut. Four years after his glamorous arrival in the Spanish capital, Kaká would quietly depart the Bernabéu in the shadow of Gareth Bale's multi-million dollar signing. At last, the Kaká saga was over.
In analyzing the last four years, I can't help but be a little self-critical for letting my fandom for a football player reach such extreme heights that I'd feel upset or riled-up when other fans criticized him. It wasn't a rational or logical reaction. After all, I don't know Kaká personally, so why should I be affected by comments targeting him? In writing this piece, I've finally been able to understand that I projected parts of myself onto Kaká and looked to our similarities as a way of justifying this unexplainable attachment to the player. In it's own small way, my experience as a Real Madrid-Kaká fan serves as a life lesson on the pitfalls of attaching oneself to a famous person, though I don't by any means regret it. Because of Kaká, I fell in love with playing soccer again, I polished my Portuguese grammar by reading the Brazilian trades and watching his interviews, and I discovered an amazing and vibrant international community known as Managing Madrid that continues to fill me with knowledge on a daily basis, and not just about football!
While I can no longer dream of Kaká raising "La Decima," I am now allowing myself to dream of Kaká raising the World Cup in the Maracanã stadium next summer. While the odds of him rejoining the Seleção are stacked steeply against him, I am choosing to believe, perhaps foolishly, that there could still be a Hollywood ending to Kaká's story. There may come a moment next year when Felipão decides his side needs a calming, veteran presence, and I can only hope Kaká will have played himself into contention after making the necessary, though forever bittersweet decision, of leaving Real Madrid- the greatest club in the world.
Thank you, Kaká. I'll always be rooting for you.
Ricardo kaka Super Skills 2009 - 2013 HD (via rom7oooHD)