By Sam Lee
Most of us will have made a new year’s resolution. Whether it be personal, like getting in shape or finding love, or professional, like re-energising your career or earning a promotion, most of us will make a promising start the year but our efforts will soon tail off as we fall back into old, bad habits.
It is difficult for most of us to achieve one of those goals, let alone all of them, but that is exactly the task that faces one man as he strives to make 2011 a year to remember. But even if he manages all of the above, he will only be delivering what is expected; the base rate.
Having played 20 minutes on his return from injury on Monday night, Kaka overcame the first of many hurdles he will have to negotiate this year if he is to get his Real Madrid career on track and begin to live up to his astonishing price tag.
Over the next few months Kaka will have to return to full fitness, fall back in love with the game and get himself back into the Madrid starting line-up.
Since arriving from Milan for £56m in the summer of 2009, the Brazilian has failed to live up to Madrid’s high expectations. In his first season with the club he managed a promising tally of nine goals and eight assists, despite missing spells through injury. That has been a familiar story for Kaka over recent years, with the 2007 Ballon D’Or winner failing to recreate the explosive form of that campaign which brought club and individual honors galore.
Something seemed amiss even before making the switch to Madrid. Despite improving both his goals and assist tallies in the season following his coronation as the World’s best player, he had started to pick up knocks, particularly in his knee, with a worrying regularity and his performances started to lack a little bang.
His final season at Milan was one disrupted by more injuries and a £100m bid from nouveau riche Manchester City, but again he had a hand in 26 goals despite not really setting the world alight. However, in March 2009 questions surrounded his commitment after he took over a month to return from a foot injury, and in attempting to allay those fears he maybe showed an insight into his mental state, a give a sign of things to come.
“As soon as I can manage the pain, I will play. It takes a little time to recover, because (that area in my foot) has several tendons that ignite continuously. In the past, I played a year with some pain in the knee, but I still could not manage.”
In another interview later that month he admitted:
“There is a limit. For a player it is very difficult to enter the field with pain. In 2006′s game against France, I felt some pain in the knee when I was playing. I regretted a bit and decided not do it again. If I have any limits, I will not play.”
Perhaps Florentino Perez, the man responsible for bringing Kaka to the club, should have read the signposts. Of course, he was intent on bringing about a new Galactico era at the Santiago Bernabeu. Within days of being re-elected club President he signed Kaka for a then world record transfer fee, only to break it days later with the signing of Cristiano Ronaldo.
As Kaka was still a major name in football, Perez was always going to be interested, but what really sealed the deal was the fact that the previous President, Jorge Valdano, had spent his tenure promising the Brazilian’s arrival, only to fail to keep his word. In a game of one-upmanship that club Presidents in Spain love so much, the new chief asserted his power by delivering the much-coveted playmaker almost immediately.
Unfortunately for Perez, and ultimately Madrid, his haste to demonstrate his financial clout got in the way of better-judgement. The Kaka that Valdano chased was at the peak of his powers, but the player Perez landed was on a downward slope, with a history of knee troubles.
By now experienced in playing through the pain, Kaka knew his limits. Many said that, desperate to play in the World Cup in South Africa, he coasted through last season at half-speed. For sure, he did not play anywhere near his best. It took him over a month to recover from a groin injury earlier this year, and once again he was accused of taking his time in returning to first team action, and specifically that he was saving himself for duty with Brazil.
Based on previous interviews it is clear that he is reluctant to push through the pain threshold, or at least he has a very low one. That is understandable; why risk the quality and longevity of a career by playing through serious pain? The suggestion that he was delaying his return so that he could be fully fit for the World Cup seemed like bitter sniping from media and fans who were disappointed that their high expectations had not yet been fulfilled.
Maybe there was something in it, though? Jose Mourinho was the new Madrid manager by the time Kaka returned from South Africa, armed with a medical report from Brazil’s medical staff that claimed a clean bill of health. Even so, the new boss showed his concerns over the player’s fitness and sent him for a check-up by the club’s own doctors. All hell broke loose. The tests showed a long-standing knee problem that required immediate surgery. Madrid fumed at Milan for concealing the evidence in order to get top dollar for their star man, while many pointed the finger at Kaka himself for risking his health, not to mention performances, to keep his World Cup dream alive.
When the doctor who performed the operation claimed that Kaka had put his career at risk by playing with the injury, talk that the Brazilian would never play for Madrid again started to circulate.
After all, a lot had already changed at the club Perez, who has in the past ordered managers to play his Galactico signings no matter what, has now left team selection to the all-conquering Mourinho. If the manager’s plans don’t include Kaka, then so be it.
And the writing seemed on the wall when Mourinho showed his displeasure in his pithy response to a pre-season question about the Brazilian’s injury.
“As the leader of a group, I cannot waste time crying over a player, as I have other players counting on me,” The Portuguese boss remarked. “My philosophy doesn’t allow me to have any doubts or to cry.”
But there was a more serious message to come.
“I have no doubts regarding the quality of our medical staff. I will not speak about Kaka any further while he is out,” he added.
With the arrival of Mesut Ozil, one of the stars of the World Cup and a player has gone on to shine in the role vacated by Kaka, both Mourinho and Perez have a player who strikes the balance between superstar and consistent performer.
Mourinho demands commitment from his players, and also likes to maintain a consistent starting XI. With the Brazilian’s allegiances often called into question, and with Ozil pulling the strings impressively in his absence, where now for Kaka?
Just as he has done in the past, he may benefit from board-room posturing. Valdano, now Madrid General Manager, is rumoured to be less than impressed with Mourinho’s constant calls for a new striker. With Perez on his old running-mate’s side and Gonzalo Higuain ruled out for six months, a reshuffle may be on the cards on the turf of the Bernabeu.
Karim Benzema, despite two recent hat-tricks, is not the preferred replacement so Mourinho may instead push Ronaldo into the lone-striker’s role. With a space now freed up on the flanks, Kaka could return to a spot on the left side of attack, or even back as playmaker should Ozil be shunted out wide himself, though that is unlikely. Another option touted in the press would be to drop Kaka back alongside the deep-lying Xabi Alonso, although the defensive burden may be too great for the player who has flourished in a creative role. With Mourinho recently favouring the (supposedly) more defensively sound Lassana Diarra over Sami Khedira, it is unlikely he would unsettle the midfield balance by throwing Kaka into that position.
A lot depends on the player’s stomach for the fight. At 28 years of age, Kaka is in danger of seeing a potentially great career fizzle out. Being at Madrid, in the world game’s spotlight more than ever due to their stunning ding-dong battle with Barcelona, offers up the ideal opportunity for the player to make himself great once again.
This latest injury could well have been a turning point. Speaking after his return against Getafe, Kaka explained the anguish he felt during his spell on the sidelines, and of his desire to come back stronger than ever.
“I missed the joy you can only get from playing and now that I’m fit again I’m going to give everything to get that feeling back. To be honest, there were moments when I feared I would never return at all and everyone from my wife and my parents to my in-laws and friends know how hard things have been.”
It’s said that you never truly miss something until it is gone. This glimpse into the abyss could prove to be the spark that reignites the career of a player haunted by injury and accusation, and provide the biggest motivation of all in the quest for a new year reinvention.