Before the reign of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, there was Kaka.
The Brazilian, who announced his retirement on Sunday, was the last man to win the FIFA World Player of the Year award (in 2007) before it became the exclusive property of the Portuguese and the little Argentine.
When judged alongside the standards of those two, Kaka clearly suffers by comparison. But we are not living in a normal age. The technical quality coupled with the consistent quest for excellence of Messi and Ronaldo are off the curve. By any normal standards, Kaka was an extraordinary talent.
His is the tale of the advantages of a privileged background put to productive use. Unusually for a Brazilian footballer, Kaka comes from money. His father was a highly successful engineer. He could have followed the family lead, or lived a playboy existence. Instead, he decided to give football his all. The story was nearly a very short one.
An accident in a swimming pool at the age of 18 could have ended his career even before it had started. As he recovered, Kaka wrote out a list of targets to be achieved in the game, and one by one he methodically went about crossing them off the list.
His greatest days came in a six-year spell at AC Milan between 2003 and 2009. The club took a gamble on him. And before long he had put established stars like Rui Costa and Rivaldo on the bench. He found the adaptation easy; well travelled and well educated, he had no fear of the world and genuinely wanted to be in Italy, soaking up the cultural experience.
He was soon soaking up the plaudits as well. Kaka running forward with the ball had the power of a freight train. He married power with finesse, and kept the game simple.
Perhaps his strengths and weaknesses were best showcased in the two Champions League finals he played against Liverpool. In 2005 opposing coach Rafael Benitez made a selection blunder, going without a holding midfielder to play against Kaka. The Brazilian ran riot as Milan established a 3-0 first-half lead. On came Didier Hamann at half-time, and it was a different game. With Kaka now quietened, Liverpool hit back and ended up winning on penalties.
Two years later, when the sides met again, Javier Mascherano kept Kaka quiet. But a goal down and needing to chase the game, Mascherano was taken off, and Kaka had the freedom to set up what turned out to be the winning goal — capping a special season in which he was the top scorer in the Champions League.
Things would never be quite as good again. Injuries started to take their toll. He was afflicted with knee and groin problems, and once his acceleration had been reduced, he lacked the subtlety to shine as before. He was unable to live up to his Galactico status at Real Madrid, and returned to Milan for a year before, with a brief spell back where it started at Sao Paulo, ending his career at Orlando City. After the high of 2007, it all looks like an anti-climax.
The most disappointing part of the career, though, was the World Cup. True, he claimed a winner’s medal in 2002. But he was taken to the Far East for experience and made one brief substitute appearance in a group game against Costa Rica.
In 2006 he was part of the so-called “magic quartet”: Kaka and Ronaldinho in midfield, backed up by strikers Ronaldo and Adriano. The side were top heavy and unconvincing. No one came out of it well. Kaka, the best player on the field in the opening win over Croatia, grew steadily worse until he was hauled off as Brazil crashed out to France in the quarterfinal.
Four years later there was another quarterfinal exit, this time against the Netherlands. This time he did not have to share the limelight. Coach Dunga’s team was built around his explosion on the counterattack. But physical problems were already taking their toll, and he had a very disappointing tournament.
He looked in line to end his international career with a final crack at the World Cup on home soil. Late in 2012 he was recalled by Brazil coach Mano Menezes and slotted successfully into a team that operated without a specialist centre-forward. But Menezes was controversially sacked. Luiz Felipe Scolari took over. Back came the centre-forward and out went Kaka.
Might he have functioned as a wise old head in a group clearly overawed by playing a World Cup on home soil? We will never know. For Kaka it remains a frustrating “if only.”
But, especially in that golden six-year spell at Milan, he can look back on plenty of times when the opposition was unable to derail the freight train with finesse.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.