The white t-shirt he wore under the iconic red and black stripes famously read ‘I belong to Jesus’. But in footballing terms, Kaka belongs to an elite list of true modern greats of the game.
The depth of his genius might well have been forgotten during his sunset years spent in the Orlando glow, but the brilliant Brazilian’s retirement on Sunday delivered a stark realisation that one of the brightest stars of this generation burnt all too briefly.
It’s sad to think that Ricardo Izecson dos Santos Leite retires from the game only 35.
Many will baulk at that number. So young considering he’s been plying his trade in the MLS since 2014, and had sadly been a mere afterthought for at least as long prior to that on the grander stage of Europe.
It begs the question: why did his bewitching brilliance disappear far too early?
This is a man who scored 204 goals in well over 600 club games – not to mention 29 strikes in an impressive 92 caps for the Selecao from 2002-2016.
Even after his star started to lose its sparkle upon initially leaving the San Siro in 2009, he still found the net an impressive 54 times in 198 appearances.
He only brought the curtain down on his international career last year – although waning powers permeated his twilight years, scoring no goals as just seven caps had been sporadically earned since 2013.
Debilitating knee injuries blighted his post-Milan years, a magician reduced to a mere mortal following an eight-month lay-off to correct a long-standing knee issue after a modest maiden campaign in Madrid in which nine goals were recorded in 33 outings (he had scored 16, 18, 19 and 18 times in his final four seasons in Italy, while 36 was the fewest appearances he made during six campaigns).
Periodical injuries darkened his time in the bright white shirt, manager Jose Mourinho signing Germany’s 2010 World Cup talisman Mesut Ozil the summer Kaka was first operated on.
It was a far cry from the fleet-footed flash of jet black hair memorably gliding past opponents in six sumptuous seasons with the Rossoneri.
A son of Sao Paulo, Kaka’s debut campaign in 2003/04 yielded the Serie A title – a first Scudetto in five years.
His breathtaking form as Milan swept to a seventh European Cup/Champions League triumph in 2007 was among the most memorable individual campaigns in recent recollection.
Kaka, seemingly with the world at his feet, had only turned 25 two days prior to a 3-2 defeat to Manchester United in the first leg of the semi-finals at Old Trafford, one of the modern era’s finest showdowns.
Eight days later he gave Milan the edge at a rainy San Siro with the first as they swept aside the Red Devils with a deluge of goals in a 3-0 hammering.
He poured in half of Milan’s 20 goals scored on the road to the trophy and reigned supreme among his peers too, collecting the Ballon d’Or that December.
The best player in the world 10 years ago, he is now known as much for being the last other than Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo to football’s greatest individual accolade.
Kaka won the Ballon d’Or award back in 2007.
He won it back when it meant more, when it wasn’t a popularity contest, when there was a plethora of stars among an army of talented players who could succeed.
Kaka’s 444 votes registered was more than any winner had ever previously polled – Zinedine Zidane earned 244 when victorious in 1998 – as he beat Ronaldo easily, by 167 points.
Although he continued to fill the stats sheets thereafter, Milan struggled. That early Scudetto turned out to be Milan’s only league success during Kaka’s six-year spell.
Sold to Madrid for €67m (Dh289m) in the summer of 2009 due to the club’s increasingly developing financial struggles, his departure hurried in a deep malaise the Rossoneri remain firmly entrenched in.
Kaka’s career has meandered, while Messi and Ronaldo now rule, but his retirement at least provides opportunity to reflect on what a truly special talent he was. He is right up there among the game’s gods – compatriots Ronaldo and Ronaldinho, Zidane, Messi and the other Ronaldo – over the last two decades.
He may well have given himself to a higher power, but Kaka’s genius belongs to the beautiful game, and all of us.