"It could have been a brilliant career"
Kaka and AC Milan rampaged through Manchester United en route to the 2007 Champions League trophy. The Brazillian was literally in the form of his life.
Literally because he hasn't played nearly as good since.
After winning World Player of the Year (WPOTY) honors and the Ballon d'Or that year, Kaka became the odd-man out at Milan.
The Rossoneri failed to qualify domestically for the Champions League the following season. Kaka was almost instantly overshadowed on the pitch by the younger, vibrant Pato. Ultimately Ronaldinho arrived and shared Kaka's position.
There were too many cooks in the kitchen, but only one could be sold for far more than the others, and far more than he was worth.
Milan showed their hand—and their valuation of it—by allowing Kaka leave to Man City last January for a rumoured $100m. He nixed the deal, though, citing God or honor or something.
That summer, he was off to Madrid for the still inflated price of $80m.
Kaka was overrated, and Milan knew it
Milan had Pato, who is now inarguably better than Kaka, being much younger and less reliant on pace. But Milan didn't just sell Kaka to free Pato as their creative pin. They sold him because the world still thought he was as good as he wasn't.
But Kaka had won the Ballon d'Or in 2007; how could he not be worth that exorbitant amount of cash? Well, rhetorical man, you just answered your own question.
Players who have outstanding seasons often become overrated. Or they simply plateau. Why?
With anything else, there are innumerable factors, of which only a finite number can be perceived and addressed.
The Curse of the Ballon d'Or
When players are named as the best in the world (or Europe) they can let it get to their heads.
At the pinnacle, the confidence that buouyed their pursuit of excellence is all of a sudden validated and slowly morphs into arrogance. The desperate hope to succeed flips and becomes expectation. Drive is replaced with complacency.
At least, that's what it seems like. Just look at recent winners of the Ballon d'Or.
The 2004 winner, then also of AC Milan, striker Andriy Shevchenko, was practically a deity. What happened? He moved to Chelsea the following year and became the butt of every bad transfer joke. He hasn't been relevant since.
In 2005, Ronaldinho deservedly won. After another ridiculous season, his form dropped drastically and has only recently recovered with any consistency this year at, coincidentally, Milan.
The 2006 winner, Fabio Cannavaro (winning, as players do in World Cup years, largely [if not solely] because of his performance in Germany) moved to Madrid, bubbling with hype, at the tournament's conclusion.
He was basically dreadful for two full seasons as the Galacticos languished. Now he's back in the safe confines of his former Italian club, Juventus, where he looks more comfortable, if only slighty more effective.
2007: Kaka. Great until then. A shadow of himself since. His reputation (and price-tag!) still run on the fumes of the award. Obviously, more on him later.
2008: Cristiano Ronaldo, though arguably still the most dominant player in world football, had a severe off-year after taking all honors.
Statistically, though, and judging by his teams' successes, you'd be hard-pressed to agree. In the following year, Ronaldo scored absolute world-class goals against Porto and Arsenal to bring his club through to the Champions League final. United won the Premiership and he had 26 goals in all comps.
But, for anyone watching him throughout each year at the club, you'd have seen a visceral change in his attitude and performances. He was doing the same trick over and over again. Every other game he was flipping off fans, getting booked for dissent or diving, arguing with referees, gesticulating with teammates, whining over fouls, flying through the air to catch crosses like a wide receiver, etc.
The pressure was tangible. It was etched in his forehead and on his eyebrows.
No, the Ballon d'Or isn't cursed. The players are. Because when they reach the top there's only one place left to go.
Why is everyone so wrong and dumb?
Secondly, there is a tendency for fans to view player form inductively, deriving broad, qualitative opinions from a small sample of performances.
For instance, virtually everyone saw Kaka dismantle Man United in the 2007 Champions League quarterfinals because it was the 2007 Champions League quarterfinals and Kaka dismantled Man United.
What I'm sayin' is, the majority of fans probably all watch the same few games each year starring certain European players, but they're still more than willing to argue about why their favorite player on their team is better than every other.
Consequently, a vast majority of fans might see a few of any player's games or highlights, while the minority of fans study most or all of a player's actions. That's why the minority is usually right when it comes to popular discourse about football. Also, most people are kind of dumb (like, IQ's less than 100!). Avoid the forums!
As such, unfortunately, for every insightful, risky article challenging popular culture there are thirty more recycling common consensus and regurgitating the same contrived rhetoric back and forth.
"Did you see that horribly banal and unremarkable game today? Oh."
As I said, everyone saw Kaka dismantle United because Kaka dismantled United.
When good players have Youtube-like performances, they're viewed by exponentially more people than are their lesser showings. No one makes or watches highlight packages of great players turning the ball over, making bad decisions, losing out on tackles, or misplacing passes, with the odd exception.
As such, the relationship between quality of play and quantity of viewers is directly proportional.
Players playing great attract more observation. Those players become great in the minds of the many who watch.
But they don't lose their perceived greatness by then playing poorly, because most of those casual people aren't seeing or watching then.
"I looked into her eyes, but all I could remember was her cleavage."
Furthermore, exceptional displays of skill and craft—like Kaka's four-touch destruction of Fletcher, Evra, Heinze, and Van der Sar then—make the strongest impressions on our minds, while the more numerable performances of lesser quality are naturally given less reverence.
Not only will more people naturally see highlights like Kaka's flaying of United's back-line, but these moments become most salient in our minds, dominating and drowning out all the instances to the contrary.
Granted, I wouldn't expect you to remember thousands of inconsequential touches specifically when our memories themselves are not boundless.
But a player's objective quality results from every touch, not just the most famous or aesthetically pleasing ones. We can't be expected to recall the banal, but we should be practical enough to retain it all in the subconscious, or else our valuations become skewed to the outliers instead of the norm.
Maybe it's just easier to rationalize a Kaka or Rooney having a shit game than having to reconfigure the way we think about football, media, or culture.
"How are you? Good. How are you? Good."
Lastly, there is a tendency in the civilized world (at least the one I'm in) to frown upon criticism and negativity.
That's right. I'm not saying my society's insufferable penchant for political correctness is responsible for the false popular perception of individual player form, but I am seriously implying it, and doing so wordily.
Most people try to live unbalanced to the good, hesitant to express disapproving opinions of anything less they hurt someone's feelings.
This works relatively well for most people to manage relationships accordingly, but in football—where form is an objective truth—it fosters carebearish treatment of our heroes' reputations.
No one wants to point out each of Ryan Giggs' turnovers because everyone likes Giggs. We want to believe that he is what everyone tells us. It makes us feel safe in our rationale. Saying he isn't nearly as good as most people believe is a buzz-kill, man!
Similarly, most casual fans or hardcore fanboys aren't going to dwell on Rooney's 35 poor touches; as long as he gets a goal, he's played well.
Because that goal—that plus-1, that single digit—supplies millions around the world with the stone-cold empirical ammunition they need to convince themselves and others of his marketabil...quality.
Who cares if they only watch one in three games: Rooney has 20 goals! We are all vindicated!
To the same extent, Brazilian or Madrista fans might return to their fond memory of Kaka alone destroying Manchester United instead of balancing all the datapoints to form a more accurate—but less fulfilling—rendering of the player and game.
The "Oh Shit" Moment
If Giggs isn't as good as each promo posits, or Rooney really isn't the world-class all-beater the newspapers say, and if Kaka isn't one of the best in the world anymore, what does it say about the game and the way it's covered?
It would mean that most people who write about it are either suffering from the same distorted lens as the innocent, casual fans they feed (and feast upon), or that it is their agenda to do so; to draw in more viewers, aggregate more clicks, sell the damn t-shirts, and promote World Cup bids.
Call it vicariousness, projection, selective memory, or capitalism; but when supposed footballing heroes—romanced online, in print, on TV, and elsewhere—don't play like Gods, both providers and consumers gloss it over or otherwise defend them.
Make no mistake: Kaka's name appeared in the last two years' individual award runs not because of ability he displayed on the field throughout, but because of a wholly shared, misconstrued perception of his footballing value, in part cultivated and largely perpetuated from that brisk Old Trafford night and our own inchoate proclivities as both wishful fans and lazy opinion-makers.