Club football is back after a brief international break and all eyes no doubt will be at the Stadio Olimpico in Turin when Torino host Milan on Saturday. The reason is obvious as Kaka looks set to mark his second innings with the Rossoneri amidst tremendous scrutiny, out to prove that the Diavolo were not wrong to put their faith in the 31-year old former Ballon d’Or winner.
The red half of Milan has always been more emotional than pragmatic when it comes to dealing with their legends or former players. Be it extending their careers and keeping them in the squad for far too long than required or gracefully taking them back when they fail elsewhere, the Berlusconi regime has taken pride in its nostalgic approach regardless of the degree of success or failure it has brought to the club.
The summer of 2012, changed it all when Milan decided to let go of the old guard in one single clear out and for a moment it looked like the club was looking to start afresh and turn a page in the club’s history until on deadline day of the recently concluded transfer window they signed Kaka.
Strolling down memory lane, however, the 2007 Champions League protagonist is not the first former star to return back to the San Siro for a second spell in the Berlusconi era. Infact he joins an elite list that also consists of the likes of Leonardo, Roberto Donadoni and Marco Simone. But the re-signing of Ruud Gullit and Andriy Shevchenko perhaps attract the most parallels.
The Dutch midfielder played for Milan for six seasons between 1987 and 1993 winning two European Cups and three Serie A titles prior to his second coming in 1994 after briefly impressing with Sampdoria. The Ukrainian striker too led the Rossoneri to a Serie A title in 2003-04 and a Champions League glory in 2002-03 during his seven seasons at the San Siro before making a return at the start of 2008-09 season after a failed couple of years at Chelsea.
Apart from the success stories with Milan, the one thing that binds the duo together is the fact that they failed to succeed during their second spell with the club. Gullit was as it is on the periphery of the Fabio Capello’s Serie A winning squad of the 1992-93 season and was sent to Sampdoria where he helped the Blucerchiati lift the Italian Cup in the 1993-94 season, enough to convince the Rossoneri to bring him back only to be sent back to the Stadio Luigi Ferraris on loan the same season.
Shevchenko on the other hand was finally handed a lifeline when Adriano Galliani decided to bring the former hero on loan from Chelsea in the summer of 2008 to add to an already glittering attack that consisted of Kaka, Filippo Inzaghi, Alexandre Pato and new signing Ronaldinho who was signed from Barcelona. Barely able to earn a spot in the starting lineup apart from a handful of Serie A, Coppa Italia and UEFA Cup appearances that season, Milan decided to send him back to Chelsea and that was that. His presence in the squad was hardly noticed as Pippo Inzaghi’s impressive form in the second half of the season propelled Milan back to the champions League culminating in Paolo Maldini’s farewell after 25 years with the club.
Kaka has had a similar record like his predecessors. It is no co-incidence that apart from the exploits on the pitch, all three were Ballon d’Or winners during their time with the Rossoneri and achieved everything there was to offer in club football.
What’s different however is that whereas Gullit’s departure back in 1993 and Shevchenko’s in 2006 were followed by immediate Champions League success in 1994 and 2007 respectively, Milan never really recovered in Europe post Kaka’s sale in 2009 despite a brief successful spell domestically largely thanks to Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s two year stint at the San Siro.
Gullit and Shevchenko needed Milan more than the club needed them at the point of their return but with Kaka, it’s different as it’s been more of a symbiotic re-union. The Brazilian may have been present physically at the Bernabeu in Madrid but he was omnipresent among the San Siro faithful who called for his return every time there was an opportunity to do so.
But having completed the transfer, those critical of his second home coming wonder if he will just follow the footsteps of Gullit and Shevchenko. Bigger doubts cloud as to whether Milan have simply taken a big step back and given in to nostalgia once again.
During his four years in Madrid, it was clear that season after season he lost that ounce of pace that made him special as he glided across defenses during his prime. Under Jose Mourinho he was merely a back up to Mesut Ozil who was ahead of him in the pecking order but when given a chance he did show flashes of brilliance. The only thing missing was a sense of continuity – in his own words, the main reason why he didn’t succeed in Spain. His record may have been mediocre but 29 goals and 32 assists in 120 games is not at all that bad for someone who is being considered as finished.
Though it’s been crystal clear that defense is where they are most lacking, Milan are also short on creativity in the attacking third and with the club trying to get back to their traditional 4-3-1-2 this season, Kaka’s ability to open up defenses and provide assists to the forward two is exactly what Massimiliano Allegri could use. With Mario Balotelli upfront, scoring is not a problem. What’s really required is credible service from behind and someone to link the midfield with the attack.
Unlike Shevchenko in 2008-09, Kaka still has a reason to play and impress with a World Cup spot in sight. It’s a dream for any footballer to play the World Cup in his home country before his own people and being a Brazilian, it’s obvious that he will look to give every bit left in him to impress Luiz Felipe Scolari to earn a spot to compete at next year’s gala in his own backyard. Had he not been that motivated to prove himself, he wouldn't have taken the hefty pay-cut just to make a return to his former hunting ground.
Apart from his on-field duties Kaka definitely has a role to play behind the scenes, chief amongst which would be to play mentor to a 21-year old Ricardo Saponara who apart from sharing the same first name is also Milan’s future hope to slot into the trequartista role permanently. Who else could be better than the one who mastered the art during his glorious days in Italy? When Shevchenko made a comeback in 2008, he was merely warming the bench in a squad brimming with seasoned veterans, most of whom had achieved everything in football. Kaka very much has a first team role to play both on and off the pitch leading a young squad which is looking to build its own legacy for the future.
With CSKA Moscow refusing to sell Keisuke Honda this summer, the Japanese (if he signs in January) will be cup bound to play in the Champions League should Milan scrape through a difficult group stage that contains the likes of Barcelona, Ajax and Celtic and Kaka’s availability and experience, should he click with the squad until then, will prove to be crucial.
"I think [playing for] Milan could take me to play another World Cup with Brazil, but I’ve got to play here. It was the right time to leave Real."
We have already seen what he can’t do, but there’s still a lot of mystery surrounding what he can and things will be clearer as and when the season progresses. Only then can a judgment be made if re-signing Kaka was another mistake that the club has already made in the past or a masterstroke that would steer the team in the right direction.
Motivation can do wonders for players and age is just a number. We saw that with Andrea Pirlo at Juventus and more recently Carlos Tevez, two players deemed surplus by their respective clubs albeit for different reasons. When Pippo Inzaghi got back from injury and finally made a comeback for Milan back in the 2005-06 seasons, he played like a possessed striker scoring 13 goals in 16 starts in the second half of the season. Too good to be ignored, a man who barely played football for two seasons straight was selected by Marcelo Lippi for the World Cup in Germany that summer, to be crowned world champion. He was nearing 33.
That Kaka’s move ‘could’ turn out to be a failure, is a given thought owing to his history over the last four years, but if he succeeds unlike those who failed before him it would certainly be the bargain of the season because Milan haven’t really paid anything for him.
Gullit and Sheva though once important, failed to recreate the magic on their return. Kaka on the other hand is very much part of the first team and must seize the opportunity to win back the respect he has gradually lost over the past four years.Milan rescued him, but can he rescue them?
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