Kaka – An Exclusive Interview
Ricardo Izecson dos Santos Leite, better known as Kaka, is a phenomenal player. AC Milan’s Brazilian star speaks to FIFA magazine about his past, present and future, his highs and ows and his life outside football.
FIFA magazine: You made your debut for Sao Paulo at the age of 18. What did that mean to you?
Kaka: My debut for Sao Paulo is an interesting story because I was actually a substitute for the youth team at the time. Every January a very important youth competition called Taca Sao Paulo is held in Brazil; everyone goes to Sao Paulo to play in it. The Sao Paulo first team coach called the youth team coach and asked for two players for a match – a forward and a midfielder. There was no problem about loaning him a striker, but the youth team coach said that he needed his first-choice midfielder because there was an important match coming up and instead offered his reserve midfielder, which was me. So he sent me, the first team coach liked me and I never went back to the youth team. It was really satisfying, but even if I had returned to the youth team, it would have been a very useful experience for my career. It was incredible to play with professionals in a stadium full of people at the age of just 18 – that’s how I made it into the first team.
Did you not feel under pressure because of the circumstances of your debut for the Sao Paulo first team?
Kaka: Making your debut for Sao Paulo is always a pressure situation. Sao Paulo are one of Brazil’s big clubs and are candidates for the league title every season and although the way in which I ended up in the first team meant that I was not under pressure from the fans, I personally felt under pressure because it was the opportunity of a lifetime. I thought to myself: if I do well I’ll stay here but if I don’t, I’ll have to go back to the youth team and wait for another chance. And I kept thinking … if I get to play, it will be the chance of a lifetime, I’m going to enjoy it and I’m going to treat it as if it were the last chance I’ll ever get. My second match was a derby against Santos and I scored a goal. Two weeks later I came on in the last few minutes of a final in Sao Paulo and scored two goals — it was beautiful, magnificent.
Who was your idol?
Kaka: Rai – a player who won everything at Sao Paulo, who became a world champion with Brazil in 1994 and was also the top player at Paris St Germain. I wanted to be like him. I was born in Brasilia, the capital, but I moved to Sao Paulo when I was seven and lived there until I was 21; I was raised in Sao Paulo and I consider myself to come from there – it’s my city and it’s beautiful, it’s a special city.
Was it during this time that Ricardo became Kaka?
Kaka: No, Ricardo never became Kaka, I’ve always been Kaka, ever since I was a child, although to begin with I didn’t spell it with a “K”; it comes from my brother who called me Kaka because he couldn’t pronounce Ricardo. I have always been Kaka.
There was also a particular moment during this time when you had an accident in a swimming pool. Did it change you in anyway?
Kaka: I have no problem talking about it, it was like this … one day I went to my grandparents’ house, which had a swimming pool in an enclosed garden, and when I dived in I hit the bottom, twisted my neck and broke the sixth bone in my vertebral column. It was a difficult moment in my career and my life. I was 18, it was October 2000 and it changed me in the sense that after the incident, I started doing things with more intensity, more commitment, more love, it changes your life in an instant and I … the truth is that the doctors told me clearly that I had been very lucky, I was able to return to football after the accident, I have been able to go back to doing whatever I wanted and since then, like I said, I do everything with more intensity, a lot more love.
After playing around 60 matches and scoring 23 goals for Sao Paulo, you signed for AC Milan …
Kaka: I played 59 official matches for Sao Paulo in two-and-a-half years. I played with Leonardo and he had always told me that in terms of the team, the club and the atmosphere, AC Milan was the number one club in the world. The opportunity came about and he told me about the team and of course I told myself that it was an opportunity I couldn’t afford to miss. As a professional I couldn’t let the moment pass; obviously, Sao Paulo didn’t want me to go, but I told them that it was my dream and that I couldn’t afford to miss it, I begged them to let me go and … I moved to Milan. When I arrived I was taken by surprise: I couldn’t understand why my arrival had attracted so much attention, the airport was full of people and afterwards, when I got to Milanello [Milan's training ground], there were all the players, whom I already knew because I used to pick them and play with them on the PlayStation … Rivaldo, Rui Costa, Redondo, Shevchenko, Inzaghi, Maldini … suddenly I was right in the midst of a team that had just won the Champions League – it was quite shock for a young guy who’d just arrived.
Who advises you? What advice do you receive?
Kaka: My father, it’s always been my father for everything – he’s the person I ring whenever I need to take a decision. I say to him: I’m thinking of doing this … how can we do this other thing… what do you think, how can we do it …?
Your time at Milan began with triumph in the UEFA Super Cup and defeat in the Intercontinental Cup …
Kaka: It all happened very quickly: I arrived and played the first match, the coach kept me in the team and I played most of the matches in the league, which we ended up winning. The UEFA Super Cup and the Intercontinental Cup final in Japan were two important moments, first of all because of the victory in Monaco and then because of the defeat against Boca Juniors in Japan … you learn from these things. Today I think that I’m better prepared but I think that I was ready then as well; now I am able to say that yes, I was ready, I think I was and I can see that I was.
It is every player’s dream to play for Milan.
Kaka: It was more than a dream, I had always wanted to play for a big European team and Milan was the right kind of club to enable me to fulfil that dream of playing in and winning the Champions League and becoming one of the top playets in Europe and the rest of the world.
Since you have been in Europe, you have only had one coach, Carlo Ancelotti. What does he mean to you?
Kaka: He is a wonderful person and a great coach. From my point of view, one of the most complicated issues for a coach is managing the group, it’s not easy, it’s not simple with so many great players. Today this player’s in the team, tomorrow someone else … it’s not at all easy to manage the group, keep everyone happy and there’s always someone who gets more games and someone who plays less. Keeping the whole squad happy is no easy task, that is one of his virtues. I came to Milan and he trusted me when I was only 21 and put me in the team. It’s not easy for a coach to do that and I’m enormously grateful to him. I’ve seen many young players come to Italy and not all of them have gone straight into the team, I really am grateful to him.
You have also experienced painful defeats with Milan, like the loss to Liverpool in the 2005 Champions League final in Istanbul.
Kaka: Istanbul … initially it was a terrible blow, it left me paralysed, but now, after analysing the defeat, I’m able to better understand what happened — these things happen in football. Our first-half performance was faultless and I have great memories of those 45 minutes, but then came the bad luck in the penalty shoot-out after we had conceded three goals …
Two years later in Athens last May, you won the Champions League with Milan …
Kaka: It was a second chance to win the tournament, suddenly Istanbul isn’t such an unhappy memory when you have the opportunity to win the title two years later; it was something I had been wanting to do. If we had lost, I think it would have been even harder than Istanbul – although it depends on the circumstances in which you lose — but Athens was unforgettable.
Winning the 2002 World Cup in Korea and Japan must also have been unforgettable, even though you only played 17 minutes against Costa Rica.
Kaka: I felt and I still feel like a world champion; I didn’t play much in that World Cup but I participated fully in everything the group did, I genuinely feel like a world champion, in football the group is important. I was 20 and I could have participated less actively or been unhappy, demanding to play, which would have strained the atmosphere, but no, I was in a squad of champions, a winning team. I could have complained and then perhaps not have won the World Cup.
What about the 2006 World Cup in Germany?
Kaka: Four years later in Germany the results were not great, but although we lost there you have to learn from it; you also learn something when you lose. It’s important to know that talent is not enough in football.
In Brazil’s first qualifier for South Africa 2010 against Ecuador (5-0) last October, you played for your country at the legendary Maracana stadium for the first time. How did you feel?
Kaka: It was incredible, it’s a moment I’ll remember for the rest of my life. The Maracana is a symbol of football in Brazil, playing for the national team there is special: to hear the whole stadium shouting “the best in the world! the best in the world!” is unbeatable.
You are currently enjoying some very special moments and have received several individual prizes. How do you react to that?
Kaka: Winning prizes of this kind, which are really important, is a great satisfaction for any player, but I think that I should do my job on the pitch as well as I can because I’m not responsible for voting for or choosing the best player. In some cases it’s the captains and coaches who do the voting, in others it’s the journalists and/ or the fans. I must do my job on the pitch the best I can; any individual prizes you receive off the pitch are the consequence of what you do on it. When a player wins one of those prizes, the team wins it also. It is true that the individual prize is yours but the only way to win it is by being part of a winning team; if the team hadn’t won the Champions League, probably nobody would have talked about me as being a nominee or a possible prize winner.
Everyone has seen Brazil arrive at stadiums playing musical instruments. What part does Kaka play in this orchestra?
Kaka: I clap my hands, I’m part of the group and I cheer them on; I’m not a samba specialist but I like to feel it when we go to games, it plays an important role for us.
Who is your best friend in football?
Kaka: I have many, the Brazilians at Milan and many others … Gilardino, Maldini, who has always helped me and given me good advice, and I’ve always been a great friend of Shevchenko’s. There are so many players; in the Brazil squad Julio Baptista is a great friend who was with me at Sao Paulo, Robinho, Diego … those are my friends from the national team, Elano …
Which is the best goal you have ever scored?
Kaka: A goal from my career … I don’t know. I have scored important goals and many beautiful ones. Perhaps the one I scored for Brazil in a friendly match against Argentina … the two goals against Manchester United at Old Trafford in the Champions League, yes … let’s say those ones.
And what about Kaka off the pitch? What do you do on a normal day in Milan?
Kaka: I lead a very quiet life, I spend time with my wife, we go out to eat, we go to the theatre, to the cinema, we watch the latest films, usually ones people have recommended. My favourite actors are Denzel Washington and Julia Roberts. I’m not very handy in the kitchen, nor am I much good at DIY. I have a talent for eating though – I have a good appetite. My wife is a very good cook. When I arrived in Italy, I was on my own for the first six months and I made some things, but only to survive – cooking is not my thing. I like finance, though – I follow the stock exchange.
You are an ambassador for the United Nations food programme …
Kaka: It’s a programme to combat hunger: my job is to spread a message to as many people as possible and find a way to tackle this scourge. To a certain extent, it’s my way of giving back everything that football has given me.
Before we finish, you are a player who is generally considered an advocate of fair play. You are always smiling, how do you explain that?
Kaka: I’m happy when I play football and although it’s true that I must face another team when I go on the pitch, I don’t think that I should fight as if it were a war. I speak to the majority of the players who mark me on the pitch and try to do my job just as they try to do theirs. That’s my way of thinking, just like I try never to talk about the referee. It’s the way I am, I understand perfectly what a difficult a job he has on the pitch, he must judge what has happened in a match in a matter of seconds, often he can’t see it and needs the help of the assistant referee — that’s why I respect the referee and don’t talk about him.
Is there any chance of you ever being a referee?
Kaka: (Laughs). Perhaps in a friendly match or on a special occasion, but I could never be a referee.