As the rumours about Real Madrid’s attempts to sign Gareth Bale continue and grow, the mind is cast back to the summer of 2009. After watching Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona complete their incredible and unprecedented Treble, Real Madrid – namely newly re-elected President Florentino Pérez – decided that the time had come for action. Pérez has never been acquainted with the virtues of subtlety and understatement. His approach to that summer was the transfer market’s equivalent to a party at Gatsby’s. The extravagance and largesse that has always been synonymous with Real Madrid was turned up to eleven and condensed into two eventful months.
Within that two months, they broke the world transfer record twice – the one they had set themselves in 2001 with the signing of Zinedine Zidane. Despite not being Pérez’s choice, Manuel Pellegrini arrived as manager. Alongside the arrivals of Raúl Albiol (£15m) Karim Benzema (£30m) and Xabi Alonso (£35m) came the two record breakers: first Kaká for £56m and a few weeks later, Cristiano Ronaldo for £80m. Naturally Ronaldo, the eventual record maintainer, the one for whom they had waited an extra year, stole all the headlines.
It ended up being somewhat prophetic for how their respective careers have gone in the Spanish capital. Ronaldo always the man at the front (with good reason), and Kaká shunted away from centre stage. They have both remained on the trajectories that started there: Ronaldo’s stock somehow ever-rising, Kaká pushed further and further out of sight – first by Ronaldo, then by Mesut Özil, but mostly by his knees.
His first season was filled with inconsistency and injury, the latter generally giving way to the former. His adapting process was steady and also harmed by his knee issues. In Pérez’s own words, Real had “to do in one year what we would normally [have done] in three”. The player turnover was quite something. They introduced the aforementioned set of nuevo galacticos, while letting 10 first team players go, including Arjen Robben, Wesley Sneijder and Fabio Cannavaro (the former two funnily going on to win the Champions League at their respective new clubs).
The team as a whole would’ve been forgiven (well, would’ve been by rational people) for starting slowly or falling to inconsistency. Thanks to Pellegrini’s excellent management, they put together 8 wins in their first 10, climbing to the top at a couple of points, and always close behind Barcelona when second. They finished with a then-La Liga record 96 points. Only Barcelona themselves finished with a new La Liga record of 99 points. It was an admirable fight, but ultimately a fruitless one. They were also knocked out of the Champions League by Olympique Lyonnais in the first knockout round, and fell to a shock two-leg loss to Alcorcón in the Copa del Rey. Pellegrini did what Pellegini does: a fantastic job, but unfortunately with no medals to show for it. Pérez sent him on his way.
The rest of the side’s consistency made up for Kaká’s lack of it. Pellegrini experimented with a number of different systems. Kaká was placed in his favoured number 10 role and on both wings as the team around him settled. He struggled to adapt quickly and only started 21 league games, on account of the injuries. His 9 goals and 6 assists were an adequate return, but he was outshone for most of the season by Rafael van der Vaart. The excuses were both present and viable. There was criticism but the calls for patience just about made themselves heard over it.
Before he could get fit, he had the 2010 World Cup. He was at the centre of Brazil’s side and their hopes ahead of the tournament, but his World Cup was similar to his domestic season: subdued and disrupted. His performances were not up to his own high standards, although he did register two assists. He was farcically sent off in the group match against Côte d’Ivoire but only missed the dead rubber against Portugal. He simply wasn’t himself, and the knee surgery he so desperately needed took place shortly after Brazil’s loss to the Netherlands.
The diagnosis was that he would spend four months out. The scene to which he returned was markedly different from the one he had left: José Mourinho had taken Pellegrini’s place, and after a sensational World Cup, Özil had taken his. Mourinho had clearer ideas and a far more settled squad upon arriving, while Özil had the advantage of not being injured when trying to earn his place. He made a highly impressive start to his career in Madrid and has grown into one of the best attacking midfielders in the world. Mourinho experimented briefly with attempting to fit Kaká and Özil into the same side, but in a system built for Ronaldo, one of them would invariably be too cut off from the play and struggle to make impact from wide, or alternatively they would inhibit eachother in the central areas.
Kaká made just 11 league starts that season and did not feature in the 1-0 Copa del Rey final win over Barcelona. Just over 18 months after becoming the most expensive player of all time, he was reduced to a bench player, through little fault of his own. Or anyone’s, beyond misfortune. Özil was and has since been far too good to even consider dropping, while Kaká himself has shown many, many times that he still has it, but generally in the same manner he did in his first season: momentarily. With Özil’s brilliance, Kaká has rarely had a run of games, and the flashes of his old self he has shown in his starts and (more often) introductions from the bench have been just that. Too fleeting, yet never given the chance to grow into anything more.
He had more of a role in the 11/12 season, but was still unable to push his way ahead of the ever-improving Özil. There were games when it finally looked as though he was truly back, but that they are remembered now with more rue than triumph by most indicates just for how long he was indeed ‘back’. He had a significant, if not exactly major, role in Real breaking another points total (this time making 100) and finally clutching the title back from Barcelona. La Décima remained the coveted entity; they took Bayern Munich to a semi final penalty shootout but Kaká, along with Ronaldo and Sergio Ramos, missed their penalties and left Bayern with the home final Real themselves had so desired two years before.
12/13 was more of a decline back into the form and rare gametime of 10/11 than the progress 11/12 had promised. Özil remained exceptional. Kaká’s chances were even more limited by this and the arrival of Luka Modrić. Real descended into domestic disarray by February, while La Décima slipped away again as they lost to Borussia Dortmund. When trailing 4-1 on aggregate with half an hour left in the second leg, Kaká was introduced and had a big hand in their first goal and turning the pressure up on Dortmund, who just about held together despite Real clawing it back to 4-3 with a few minutes left. The long, drawn out and painful death of Mourinho’s era was complete, and now it was another new start for Real and Kaká.
In January 2012, it looked very much as though Kaká time in Spain would meet its end, or at least come to an intermission of sorts. Kaká’s home came searching for its lost son. Not Brazil, but Milan. But it was not the Milan he had known. It was an indebted shadow of its former self, scraping up pennies to try and reclaim the riches it had lost. They could not afford Kaká’s fee, or even his wages, but they aimed to negotiate a loan with Real. Kaká had agreed a paycut to return; the clubs couldn’t reach a financial settlement to let him do so. And so he stayed, surely just wasting his time on the bench for however long it would end up being.
During the glorious years at Milan, Kaká became the world’s greatest. He was the most elegant, the cleverest; blessed with fantastic vision and technical ability. A wonderful dribbler and passer with a truly phenomenal awareness of space and other players in the opposition half, and always able to score plenty. Yet he made no sense. He was not a number 10 in the truest sense, although that was his nominal position. He needed complete freedom and a setup that protected his near-total inability to defend and played to his undying determination to push the play forward, which is also part of why he struggled in Mourinho’s more rigid 4-2-3-1. He was worth all the provisions. He could yet prove that he still is.
His stream of successes at Milan were mainly thanks to the manager who knew him best and knew exactly how to get the best from him: Carlo Ancelotti. Pérez’s decision to give ‘Carletto’ the Real job was possibly the only thing that could have saved Kaká’s Real Madrid career. Ancelotti has already indicated that Kaká is doing extra work on his speed, which was one of his most valuable assets during his prime and has been damaged by the injuries. Kaká himself has said that they have had encouraging conversations about the year ahead.
To revive the magnificence of the Kaká who signed for Real Madrid is probably impossible, but that does not mean he must forever remain the wasted former star, turned irrelevant understudy. He has been thrown a chance most assumed impossible and although there exists massive competition for places, Kaká has as good a chance as any he has ever had to remind the world why he was widely accepted its best, and to make himself a part of Luiz Felipe Scolari’s plans again, ahead of the World Cup. With the help of the man who once described him as “even smarter” than Zidane, chances will not be lacking; all that remains is for him to justify them.