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A tribute to Kaká, the Brazilian who took the Beautiful Game to new graceful heights

On Monday, Ricardo Izecson dos Santos Leite, the man known simply as Kaká, retired from soccer.

Nowadays, Kaká’s name has become a sort of marker, he was the last player not named Messi or Ronaldo to win the Ballon D’or (in 2007), the award given to the best soccer player in the world, but for a stretch in the mid-aughts, Kaká was untouchable.

Kaká began his career at his boyhood club of Sao Paolo, debuting for the Brazilian giants at the age of 18. It was clear then that Kaká was a special player.

When I was 9 years old I lived in the Sao Paolo suburb of Campinas, Brazil. I remember watching a young, baby-faced kid dominate and control the game against much older, larger opponents. At just 18, Kaká became the next great Brazilian hope.

He was an unstoppable mix of power, pace, grace, and skill. He seemed to float around the pitch in that infamous number 10 position, controlling the ball in the typical Brazilian fashion, almost caressing the ball as if it was something that needed caring for.

But defenders that were lulled into a false sense of Kaká’s softness would be easily shouldered off the ball. Kaká’s strength was probably his most vital, and underrated asset. And in Italy’s Serie A, where Kaká spent his best years with AC Milan between 2003-2009, one of the most physical leagues in the world, Kaká asserted his strength over some of the best defenders in Europe.

Kaká’s signature move was to gather the ball around the halfway mark, turn and sprint directly towards goal. His pacy, powerful runs from deep midfield were pretty much unstoppable as defenders pathetically bounced off of him in an attempt to wrestle the ball away.

In the summer of 2009, Real Madrid paid Milan €67 million to bring the Brazilian to the Bernabeu as their next Galatico. At the time, this was the most money ever spent on a player and Kaká seemed worth every penny.

But Kaká would suffer a rash of injuries, dulling his electric pace and agility. He was still one of the most skilled players on the pitch, but without his physical assets, Kaká’s effectiveness fell.

Towards the end of his Real Madrid career, Kaká was a shell of himself, becoming a warning against big money moves for “luxury players” who don’t put in a shift at both sides of the pitch.

After returning to Milan for a year, Kaká became the next former great to ply his trade in the MLS, signing for Orlando City in 2014.

It was clear that Kaká was nowhere near the player he was a decade previous, mostly because of the loss of his speed and power, but his skill on the ball was still there.

He had no problem twerking on MLS defenses and scoring ridiculous free kick goals in his time in Orlando.

Kaká was the rare player that mixes power, pace, and skill into a graceful, otherworldly package. He was one of the most unique players of the aughts and truly embodied the Brazilian soccer mantra Joga Bonito to the utmost.

As a young player I modeled my game after Kaká, watching hours of YouTube footage of the elegant Brazilian. I, and a lot of kids my age, wanted to be like Kaká before Messi and Ronaldo turned The World’s Best Player debate into a two-horse race.

Kaká’s career does come with a lot of what-ifs. Injuries and World Cup failures have hampered his legacy slightly. But for true aesthetes, and ultimately that is what the Beautiful Game is about, Kaká brought the sport to new heights.

We’ll miss seeing Kaká out on the pitch, but he’s sure to bring the same grace, dignity, and faith that he played with to his next career. Here’s to you, Ricardo.