When Carlo Ancelotti heard Milan were signing a player from Brazil by the name of Kaká a decade ago, he didn’t know what to expect.
He had never heard of him before: “the name, more than anything seemed indicative [that he was, erm, s**t].” Juventus general manager Luciano Moggi in particular had a good old laugh about it.
When journalists asked what Kaká was like, Ancelotti didn’t know what to tell them. He went on what he’d been briefed: that Kaká had potential, how he was a playmaker, but wasn’t very quick.
Ancelotti either kept things deliberately vague - to hide the fact that he didn’t have a clue - or made blind comparisons such as with Toninho Cerezo, his former teammate at Roma.
Watching on TV as Kaká, all fresh-faced with a pair of glasses on, came through the airport terminal at Malpensa, Ancelotti’s reaction was memorable. “Oh God, we’ve signed a university student,” he said to himself.
When Kaká turned up for his first training session at Milanello, Ancelotti joked: “Have you told your mum and dad you’re not going to school today?” Did he know this was a place for men, not boys? “The security guards should have asked him to show his ID card before letting him.”
Chortling to himself, it was only when Kaká went out on the pitch to train that the sceptical look on his face changed to one of astonishment. Ancelotti’s eyebrow twitched.
He described watching Kaká as though the “heavens had opened”, as though he had been sent from God. Rino Gattuso tried to “welcome” him to Milan with a shoulder barge, only to get shrugged off.
“Vaffanculo!” he shouted more in respect than disdain. After beating him, Kaká then made a 30-yard pass which caught Alessandro Nesta completely out of position.
Ancelotti couldn’t believe what he was seeing. “[He wasn’t] at Zinedine Zidane’s level, but almost. The second best player I’ve coached and definitely the most intelligent… The following training sessions were like the first. The third, the fourth, the fifth, all the same, a show.”
Until Kaká’s arrival, Milan in Ancelotti’s opinion were “quite a static team - Rui Costa and Rivaldo played a lot with the ball at their feet.” This 21-year-old brought a dynamism they lacked, a speed of thinking too.
Milan won the Scudetto in his first season. By the time he left San Siro heavy-heartedly four years ago, Kaká had made an indelible mark on the club’s history, a Champions League and Intercontinental Cup winner with a Ballon d’Or on his mantlepiece too.
He was the last to win it prior to the Cristiano Ronaldo-Lionel Messi era taking hold.
One wonders what Ancelotti felt on observing Kaká at Real Madrid this summer; not the same sensations as all those years ago, that’s for sure, a tinge of sadness even.
The groin problem Kaká had aggravated towards the end of his time at Milan relapsed shortly after his €65m move to the Bernabéu and the imbalances it created were impacting on his knee. He’d had surgery and undergone a cutting edge biomechanical study pioneered by his personal physician Toribio Leite.
But the impression gathered was that he was no longer the same player.
That “extraordinary” dynamism which blew Ancelotti and opponents away, the sudden bursts of acceleration and elasticity in his play had, with the exception of a few flashes, gone. Like his former team-mate Andriy Shevchenko at Chelsea, Kaká was considered a huge flop at Real Madrid.
It was hoped that a reunion with Ancelotti might revive him. Instead, he was told by the club that with the arrivals of Isco and Gareth Bale, there was no more space for him. It was the right time to leave.
Linked with a return to Milan in almost every transfer window since he left, Kaká hoped that by the end of this one, it might actually happen. He “dreamt of hearing my chant again at San Siro.”
Flying to Madrid on Sunday, Milan’s chief executive Adriano Galliani said a deal would be “difficilissimissimissimo.” But that hasn’t stopped him in the past. Watching Galliani operate in the transfer market is like coming across an old episode of Mission Impossible on TV.
Remember, for instance, the assignments he accepted to bring Zlatan Ibrahimovic to Milan from Barcelona in the summer of 2010 and then Mario Balotelli from Manchester City in the spring of this year. This is his forte.
By Sunday evening he’d reached an agreement with Real Madrid to sign Kaká for free. Then between 2:30am and 3:30am on Monday, he’d got the player to accept a huge paycut of €6m a year. Milan supporters woke up to the news on deadline day that their adopted son was, to use his own words, “coming home”.
Around 400 gathered at Linate to welcome Kaká back to the city, many more than went to welcome Balotelli. Another 200 were outside the clinic where he underwent a nervous medical. They’d later assemble in their numbers under Milan’s offices in via Turati too where Kaká signed a two-year contract worth €4m a season excluding bonuses.
It’s about half what he used to earn at Milan, leading Guerin Sportivo to argue that the club are getting half the player that he was back then. We’ll reflect on that in a moment.
But for now let’s focus on the fans’ reaction - Kaká remains an idol to them. Their love is unconditional.
As he emerged on the balcony of Milan’s headquarters yesterday afternoon and pulled on his old red and black 22 shirt, a scarf draped around his neck, they sang his song: “Siam venuti qua per vedere segnare Kaká” - We’ve come here to see Kaká score. He bounced with them as they chanted “Who doesn’t jump is an Inter supporter,” beating the club crest and pumping his first in the air.
What is it about Kaká and balconies? It called to mind how he’d stood out on one facing Piazza Duomo to show the crowd his Ballon d’Or in 2007 and of course his appearance at the window of his apartment on Santa Maria delle Grazie in the spring of 2009 to reassure fans he was staying and not going to Manchester City, only to be sold four months later.
The following Kaká has in Milan shouldn’t be underestimated. When he left, season ticket sales at San Siro collapsed from 41,606 to 25,984, a fall of 37.5%, greater than even after Calciopoli and when Shevchenko departed.
Galliani spoke of “the orphans of Kaká.” You’d have thought that over time the hold he had on supporters might have diminished, but no. Polling ahead of the last general election in Italy earlier this year, Silvio Berlusconi’s Popolo della Libertá found that signing Kaká might bring about a 2% vote increase at the ballot box.
So with all that in mind, you can understand why La Repubblica judged the move a marketing exercise based on affection, an operation in nostalgia, a strum of the heartstrings.
It’s easy to be cynical about it. Second comings rarely work out at Milan. Ruud Gullit didn’t scale the same heights on his return from Sampdoria in 1994 and was sent back there before being sold to Chelsea.
Arrigo Sacchi couldn’t replicate the success he had between 1987 and 1991, finishing 11th in 1997, nor could Fabio Capello, ending in 10th in 1999. The least said about Shevchenko’s re-appearance on loan from Chelsea in Kaká’s final season the better too.
Optimists have instead cited the example of Andrea Pirlo, who Milan considered to be finished at 32 two years ago, only to then show he was anything but at Juventus, inspiring the team to back-to-back Scudetti.
Kaká is a year younger than he was then, but the difference is that everything that goes into making Pirlo such a special player is still very much intact. As we’ve discussed, that’s not the case with Kaká. All of which isn’t to say of course that he can’t still make a telling contribution.
We know what Kaká’s game has lost. Now we await to see what remains. Providing he stays fit and gets some consistency playing in the hole left by Kevin-Prince Boateng behind Mario Balotelli and one of either Stephan El Shaarawy or Alessandro Matri, expect Kaká to still shine, just not as brightly as in the past. You don’t forget to play football or see it in the same way.
He has given the whole place a lift. Don’t underestimate the value attributed to these intangible qualities of his. Nearly all of the Ancelotti generation, the one lest we forget which last achieved great continental success at Milan, has gone. Kaká’s return is a link to it.
Il Corriere della Sera believes he will “transmit the chromosomes of grandeur” to this recession hit Milan and act as a reference point to its talented kids, many of whom, like El Shaarawy and his “heir” Ricky Saponara for example, are in absolute awe for him.
They look up to Kaká and see him as an example of what they might achieve at Milan. He’s bound up in the club’s winning history, its identity.
It remains to be seen of course how much of this affair is romantic and whether Milan are love fools, blinded by an old flame.
A cake prepared by the chef at Giannino’s, the restaurant frequented by Milan’s players and directors, to celebrate his return had the words “Some love stories never end” piped on its icing.
That between Kaká and Milan endures like the great ones. Time will tell whether this particular chapter has a happy ending or not.
James Horncastle | Follow on Twitter