Sometimes it blindsides him. It blindsides me too, from time-to-time.
The geographically challenging and aesthetically ugly Atatürk Stadium, in Basaksehir, out on the outer-rim territories of Istanbul was the location for the 2005 UEFA Champions League final. Or, if you’re a football hipster, aimlessly treading water around their mid-40s like me, then the European Cup final.
Kaká was there and so was I.
Six insane minutes of football in the second half of that game had, not just a mental, but also a cultural impact, on all who were in attendance and on many millions more people who were watching their televisions in disbelief.
That AC Milan side. An ‘OK’ goalkeeper in Dida aside, it dripped with outrageous talent. We’re talking about the predatory striking instincts of Andriy Shevchenko and Hernán Crespo.
Left bewildered in the case of the former, that he couldn’t find a way past Jerzy Dudek in the 120 minutes of football or the resultant penalty shootout. While in the case of the latter, that the two goals he scored shortly before half-time weren’t enough to make the remainder of the game a formality, as he walked off the pitch at half-time with his team cradling a 3-0 lead.
We’re talking about defenders of immense substance buckling under a concentrated wave of unexpected pressure. Paolo Maldini, Alessandro Nesta, Cafu and Jaap Stam. could count on over 400 international appearances between them by the time their playing careers came to an end. Cafu, a two-times World Cup winner. Nesta, a World Cup winner to be. Stam, the immovable object, and Maldini, well, just Paolo Maldini.
We’re talking about one of the greatest midfields ever assembled. Gennaro Gattuso, usually with his hands behind his back. Clarence Seedorf, a European Cup winner with three different clubs. The unimpeachable Andrea Pirlo, a year away from winning the World Cup, and of course the Brazilian maestro himself, Kaká.
It made little sense then, and it still makes little sense now. Djimi Traoré obtained a European Cup winners medal on that crazy, windswept, legendary night, way out there on the very cusp of Asia. Kaká was imperious during the first half. In a masterclass of faultless football, he was heavily involved in all three of Milan’s goals.
From there, something intangible happened. There is an indefinable connection between Liverpool and the European Cup. A hypnotism is sometimes at play. No lesser demigods of the game than Diego Maradona, Johan Cruyff and Franz Beckenbauer where there that night and they felt it too. Cruyff in particular, who said it had sent shivers down his spine.
Thomas Tuchel once proclaimed, on another strange European night at Anfield, that the Liverpool supporters just knew they were going to win. It’s impossible to explain, but, sometimes we do indeed ‘just know’.
Years later, during a radio interview, Kaká was silenced by the thought of it all. Still unable to reconcile his emotions and disbelief. It is a very Brazilian thing to do, to dwell upon the haunting defeat, no matter what soothing victories have since come to ease the pain.
Despite the beauty of success in Sweden in 1958, no matter about retaining the World Cup in Chile in 1962, or the artistry of Mexico 70, ‘the less said the better’ functional nature of USA 94 and ‘partial credit’ aura of Korea/Japan 2002, it is the failures on home soil in 1950 and 2014 that capture the attention of the mind for many Brazilians. It is an obsession which consumes.
Athens in 2007 should have banished the demons of Istanbul 2005, from Kaká and Milan’s perspective. Kaká was there and so was I.
It was a better Liverpool team than two years earlier, and it was still a great, but also a marginally inferior Milan side to the one they had in Istanbul. Liverpool broadly performed better than they did two years earlier, but Milan this time enjoyed the breaks of fortune.
I stood and applauded the winners, then flew back out to Rhodes to continue with the holiday I’d began a few days earlier. Kaká and Milan let out a sigh of relief, but somehow that victory in 2007 didn’t quite heal the wounds of 2005.
Kaká gave thanks to Jesus, on the turf of Athens Olympic Stadium. It is an iconic photo. It is one which speaks of redemption, but one perhaps cloaked in relief instead.
When Liverpool lost the 1988/89 league title with the last kick of the season, the 1989/90 title win wasn’t the redemption you might expect it to have felt like. It was instead a tense campaign, which often left you gripped by the fear of the pain of failing again.
There is an argument to suggest that this is a phenomenon which could also apply to Kaká and Milan. Did either of them ever truly get over the events of May 25, 2005?
Beyond shading the 2007 Athens rematch with Liverpool, Milan have largely been side-lined both domestically and in Europe ever since.
One Serie A title, in 2010/11, has been the total of their collection of trophies of substance since 2007. In recent years they’ve even laboured to mid-table finishes.
While Juventus have eventually enjoyed a post Calciopoli boom, Milan, who got off relatively lightly in 2006, have painfully drifted to a place amongst the also-rans of Italian football. Both Serie A and the European scene would benefit greatly from a resurgent I Rossoneri.
In turn, Kaká continued to hit the personal heights for Milan for two further seasons, yet couldn’t lead his side to more silverware after 2007. Real Madrid came calling in 2009, and in what should have been the perfect union of player and club, the two suitors surprisingly failed to hit it off.
Four polarising years in the Spanish capital killed Kaká’s momentum. There were good times to be found with Los Blancos, but a demanding public allied to the pragmatism of José Mourinho left Kaká in an awkward corner. Real Madrid were the right club at the wrong time.
With the characteristic acceptance that there is a reason for everything, Kaká never regretted his move to the Bernabéu. A La Liga title was won in 2011/12, but he was largely part of the supporting cast.
These frustrations were added to by Brazil’s inability to adequately challenge for the World Cup during his peak years. Part of the squad which won the World Cup in 2002, Kaká had largely watched the tournament from the bench, restricted to just 18 minutes of action as a substitute for Rivaldo during the group stages against Costa Rica.
Four years later, at the peak of his powers during Germany 2006, it was a side which was essentially built around Kaká. It came as a genuine surprise when France knocked them out in the quarter-finals.
One more chance came at South Africa 2010, and with it came another quarter-final exit, this time to Bert van Marwijk’s brooding Netherlands side, who would go down to Spain in the final, quite literally kicking and screaming.
Still only 32 at the time, Kaká was omitted by Luis Filipe Scolari from the Brazil squad for the 2014 World Cup on home soil. Still a Real Madrid player, and having collected a La Liga winners medal that season, it spoke volumes of his time in Spain. It spoke volumes of how he had all-too successfully blended into the Bernabéu wallpaper. A new hero in the shape of Neymar had risen, and as far as Scolari was concerned he didn’t need any of what he saw as the ghosts of failures past.
A one season return was made to the San Siro in 2013/14, to play for Milan once more. Finding his personal mojo again, but also finding a substandard collection of team-mates in comparison to those he had been blessed with the first time around, Milan could only finish in 8th position in Serie A, with Kaká showing fleeting glimpses of the player he had been for them. He proved to be one of the few bright points of a difficult campaign.
From there, Kaká headed to the MLS with Orlando City, winning an agreement as part of the deal that he could return to São Paulo on loan for a short spell. The club where it all started for him.
While out of the bright lights of Serie A and La Liga, Kaká enjoyed a late renaissance of sorts in the MLS. Playing for the sheer joy of the game, he even returned to play for Brazil, the last of his appearances for his nation coming shortly before the Copa América Centenario, against Panama in 2016. Notions of him going to the tournament, unfortunately, evaporated due to injury.
In 2017 Kaká bade farewell to a game which had at one stage been in the palm of his hand. Set to inherit the earth, the riches of the promised land were never fully attained. You could say they started to blow away on that warm, but breezy night in Istanbul on May 25, 2005.
The image of Kaká, on his knees in thanks to the success of Athens two years later was meant to symbolise a new beginning for him, but perhaps it instead marked only the beginning of the end of an era that had only just taken flight.