This year’s Ballon d’Or ceremony will more than likely mark 10 years of a Ronaldo-Messi shared monopoly of football’s most coveted individual award. During that decade, their dominance has rarely been threatened. In fact, only once, in 2010, did the pair not take up the two top spots.
Regardless of your views on the validity of the Ballon d’Or’s voting system or its merits, few can dispute that Messi and Ronaldo have been deserving of their supremacy. Fact is, it’s not since 2007 that another footballer has truly performed at a higher level than these two; this player was Brazilian playmaker Ricardo Kaká.
Kaká is currently in the twilight of his career, enjoying a more-than comfortable pay-packet as Orlando City’s ‘designated player’. Frequent knee injuries since his world-record move to Real Madrid in 2009 have accelerated the Brazilian’s demise as top player.
However, there was a precious time, between the mid-to-late 2000s, when Kaká was the most feared midfielder in world football.
“I remember how badly we took it as a team when Kaká 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
Kaká was a supremely balanced and versatile player – an astute passer of the ball with a powerful and accurate shot. He was extremely both-footed, lightening quick and possessed underestimated strength.
The Brazilian’s versatility meant he was comfortable operating from either flank, as an out-and-out striker, or in a deep-lying midfield role. However, Kaká was most effective playing as a Trequartista; linking the midfield and attack with trademark lung-bursting runs and creativity.
His intelligence enabled him to exploit spaces with ruthless efficiency and then use his dribbling ability to force opponents onto the back-foot.
“For two, maybe three seasons [at Milan] he was the best player in the world, there was nothing he couldn’t do.”
Upon signing for AC Milan in 2004, Kaká was an instant success, scoring 10 goals in his opening season and providing a vital assist for Andriy Shevchenko’s Scudetto-winning goal. Subsequently, he was named Serie A Footballer of the Year in 2004.
In the following season, the Rossoneri reached the Champions League Final with Kaká operating as part of a fearsome five-man midfield.
The playmaker was imperious during the first-half of the final against Liverpool – his curling, pinpoint pass to Hernan Crespo for Milan’s third remains one of the finest assists in Champions League history.
Following heartbreak in Istanbul, Kaká continued to mature into one of the world’s finest footballers. He scored 17 league goals during the 2005/06 campaign and was nominated for the Ballon d’Or for the third year running.
However, the Rossoneri were punished for their involvement in the Calciopoli Scandal and would consequently start the upcoming Serie A season on minus eight points.
Despite this, the 2006/07 season would see the Brazilian truly cement himself as the world’s best footballer. In a year where the Scudetto would be unattainable for Milan, the Champions League would take priority.
Following Shevchenko’s departure from Italy, Kaká became the focal point of Milan’s attack. He was deployed in multiple positions during the season but typically excelled as a second-striker, usually behind Filippo Inzaghi.
He played a pivotal role in AC Milan’s route to the final in Athens. The attacking-midfielder was a frequent match-winner, providing vital goals and assists; the driving force behind everything Milan did.
It was at this point that Kaká transcended from a great footballer into a world-beater.
Kaká est le seul joueur à avoir eu le Ballon d'Or en ayant Messi et Ronaldo comme concurrence (2007) pic.twitter.com/6j1caaqnuh
— Mephisto (@AaronMephisto) September 19, 2017
In recent times, goalscoring statistics have become an increasingly significant measurement of a players merit – the Messi versus Ronaldo debate has assured us of this. However, this is rarely what separates the very best from the rest.
More often than not, outstanding individual performances, in high-stakes games are how the greatest truly distinguish themselves.
These are the type of performances that ‘wow’ audiences and defy the limitations of what a footballer can do – think Messi’s four-goal demolition of Arsenal in 2010; his mazy-dribble at the Bernabeu in 2011 or his torment of Jerome Boateng and Manuel Neuer in 2015 – just to name a few.
Of course, Messi scored bucket-loads of goals in all three aforementioned years, but these particular games stick in the memory, do they not? Statistics are merely numbers comparatively.
In 2007, Kaká produced these kind of special displays in the Champions League. He was unstoppable and possessed the aura of a player who was fully aware of this. The knockout stages in the new year would coincide with the finest form of the Brazilian’s career.
In the Last 16, the Rossoneri were unable to breakdown a resilient Celtic over 180 minutes of football. But in the opening minutes of extra-time Kaká picked up the ball just inside his own half.
The swaggering midfielder brushed off Neil Lennon before proceeding on a ruthless and direct charge into Celtic territory. Taking advantage of tired legs, Kaká carried the ball at a frightening speed; to the degree that he almost glided past the final defender before sliding the ball through Boruc’s legs to score.
The midfielder had crushed Celtic’s hopes in a matter of seconds having touched the ball just eight times along the way.
Ayer se cumplían 10 años de aquel Golazo en San Siro de Ricky en los Octavos de final de UCL vs Celtic.
KAKÁ ??? pic.twitter.com/Z1ExfPclW8
— World AC Milan. (@WorldACMilan) March 8, 2017
The next round saw AC Milan face Bayern Munich who earned a first-leg draw at the San Siro, despite another goal from Kaká.
However, Milan were much improved in the second-leg and their star man was a constant threat throughout. The Brazilian provided a crucial assist for Milan’s opener and consistently carried the ball, providing vital respite for his team. Against the odds, the Rossoneri secured a 2-0 away win in Munich.
Milan’s opponents in the semis would be Manchester United and Cristiano Ronaldo; Kaká’s main rival for the Ballon d’Or. Nevertheless, the South American was at the peak of his powers throughout the tie.
“I think on present form Cristiano and Kaka are the two best players in the world. I watched Kaka the other night and he did very well.”
– Sir Alex Ferguson prior to the semi-final, 2007
In the first-leg at Old Trafford, Kaká scored two vital away goals, both of which showcasing why the Brazilian was so dangerous.
First, he latched onto a Seedorf through ball and proceeded to accelerate into Manchester United’s box. The Brazilian’s blistering pace took him away from Gabriel Heinze before he calmly finished into the far-corner.
Then, 15 minutes later, Kaká’s second of the game would go down as a Champions League great.
— Champions League (@ChampionsLeague) November 7, 2014
Running onto a long ball down the left, Kaká outmuscled Darren Fletcher before making a mockery of Gabriel Heinze once more. The Brazilian audaciously flicked the ball over the Argentine’s head and then sneakily headed it between two on-rushing defenders just as they collided, leaving a defeated Heinze on his knees.
Kaká’s bravery and speed-of-thought had earned him a one-on-one with time to spare. Predictably, the Brazilian finished coolly before pointing to the skies in typical celebration. Milan eventually lost the game 3-2 but Kaká’s heroics kept them firmly in the tie.
Back at the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza, Milan were rampant in the rain. Kaká opened the scoring with a glorious half-volley on his weaker-foot as the Rossoneri ran-out comfortable 3-0 winners to proceed to the final.
The 2007 Champions League Final in Athens was a repeat fixture of Istanbul two years earlier. Milan were seeking redemption and with Kaká at his brilliant best the Reds were unable to produce their usual heroics.
The midfielder won the free-kick which led to Milan’s opening goal before playing a beautifully disguised pass to Inzaghi who made it two. Upon the final whistle, the world’s best player fell to his knees, revealing a vest that displayed the words: ‘I Belong To Jesus’. But in Milan, Kaká was God himself.
That night the Brazilian had reached the pinnacle of club football and finished as the Champions League’s top scorer with 10 goals.
Following their Champions League triumph, Milan went on to win the Super Cup against Sevilla in August and the FIFA Club World Cup in December. Their talisman scored in both finals.
“He’s the complete player.”
Kaká achieved a virtual clean sweep of individual awards that year, including FIFA World Player of the Year and UEFA Club Footballer of the Year. Most significantly, he was also awarded the Ballon d’Or with a resounding 444 votes to Ronaldo’s 277.
The last human to win a Ballon d'Or.
Happy 35th birthday, Kaká. ?? pic.twitter.com/yq4A2h9Ug6
— Football Facts (@FootbalIFact) April 22, 2017
The Brazilian had been threatening to explode as a global superstar for years at Milan; it’s just a shame that almost as soon as he did his career immediately took a turn for the worst. Whether due to unfortunate injuries or an ill-advised move to Spain, Kaká’s reign at the pinnacle of world football was short-lived.
It’s interesting, though, that Kaká has never quite been held in the same esteem as Ronaldinho, given both enjoyed similarly short-period’s as the world’s best player before slowly fading away. Perhaps Ronny’s character and nature as a player made him more globally marketable and adored, but Ricardo Kaká was every bit as effective during his time.