Second chances rarely come with happy endings in football. Whether it's a big money move, off-the-pitch problems or a serious injury, all too often such crucial moments in a top player’s career means that he fades away long before having the chance to go out on top. Andriy Shevchenko, Michael Owen and Adriano can attest to that.
For Riki Kaka, that crucial moment came in 2009. With Milan on the wain both on the pitch and the balance sheet, it was inevitable that their biggest star would be on the move.
A bid from the nouveau riche at Manchester City—reportedly over £100 million—was rejected. The Brazilian didn't much fancy Eastlands, it seemed. Spain was more his style. When Real Madrid came knocking, neither he nor the powers that be at the San Siro could resist.
For the player, a bumper six-year deal that placed him firmly at the heart of the Galacticos 2.0 of president Florentino Perez. A chance to conquer a new league, enchant new fans. The 2007 Ballon d'Or winner was just 26, and seemed to have another era of success and personal fulfillment ahead of him.
If only it'd all gone that smoothly. Like so many before, fate has conspired against Kaka since his mega-move to Madrid. A bloated squad, injures and backroom politics have all meant that playing time at the Santiago Bernabeu was limited—almost criminally so, for a player of Kaka's rare talent.
For some, a return of 32 goals and the same number of assists in 120 games for Los Merengues would not be a bad return. But for any romantics looking on, it's a tally nothing short of tragic. Only a handful of those games saw the Brazilian fantasista last the full 90 minutes; most of the time his appearances were blighted by inconsistent form, injury, or both.
In 2009 it had been Kaka's name that excited the Madrid faithful more than any other, even more than that of Cristiano Ronaldo. But while the Portuguese improved, Kaka stagnated. Ronaldo became the superstar, and the focus of the team.
Madrid's No.7 was the creator that the players and the fans looked to most. Over time, fresh faces were added to offer an extra spark. Mesut Ozil, Luka Modric, Angel di Maria, Isco and Gareth Bale. The search for the next Galactico had moved on, and left Kaka behind.
Milan, too, have had a rough time of it. There was the Scudetto win in 2011—something that had alluded the Rossoneri since Kaka's debut season in 2004—but on the whole it's been a difficult few years for a side that likes to refer to itselfas "the most successful club in the world."
Kaka's departure was the death-knell for one of the finest sides in recent memory. Carlo Ancelotti left after almost a decade in charge, and the squad slowly started to shed the plethora of aging World Cup and Champions League winners that had made Milan so formidable.
Young players like Alexandre Pato were meant to plug the gaps but fell short or—as was the case with Thiago Silva—moved on. And while a brief fling with Zlatan Ibrahimovic papered over the cracks, the San Siro was no longer big enough for a player like the Swede. Before long the burden of his wages and the obvious gulf in class between the player and the rest of the squad had the club looking to unload the burden and the man looking for a fresh challenge.
Things have improved markedly since then on the red side of Milan. It's now neighbours Inter who are saddled with an aging, unimpressive squad and are struggling to adapt financially to football's new, more responsible landscape.
At Milanello, Berlusconi has done something he never managed while prime minister of Italy: he's balancing the books and created plenty of opportunity for energetic, talented youth to impress.
The prodigal son comes back to a very different homestead. He's still a club legend and a fan favourite, but few would argue that he's the Rossoneri's main attraction. Kaka is not as quick as he once was—or as consistent—andfour years as a bit-part player is likely to have dulled his senses and his abilities.
Maybe he can get them back, maybe not. The second coming might also be a renaissance for a player who many still rate as the finest of his generation, or it might just be a swan song that flickers, rather than rekindles, the brilliance of old.
Kaka hopes to rediscover his ability and his will to play, and to pull the strings for Milan for seasons to come. After all, his old pal Andrea Pirlo did it. So too did Roma's Francesco Totti—who looked a spent force a few seasons ago—and Ronaldinho, who's once again delighting crowds and confounding defences in his native Brazil.
If he can rediscover his desire and his touch, then memories of former teammates Paolo Maldini and Cafu should dispel any worries about longevity. Staying positive, he could still be playing at the end of this decade.
Mention of positivity brings us to what will perhaps be Kaka's greatest gift to Milan this time around: his inspirational presence.
Much is made of the fact that Max Allegri's brightest young talents—Mattia De Sciglio, Stephan El Shaarawy and Mario Balotelli—are all Milan fans, born and bred. To them, like so many other Milanisti, the Brazilian is a Demigod. The embodiment of everything that a player at the club should aspire to be.
He's won everything there is to win in football—and he's won it the right way. Kaka's almost as famous for his respectful, down-to-earth manner as he is for his footballing talents, and having a serious, work-focused role model like him in the dressing room can be no bad thing.
If he can still produce the occasional flash of the old Kaka? Then neither the players or the fans will need anything else in the way of inspiration.
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