“When he joined us, he looked like a loser. I told myself, ‘Who the heck did we sign?’”
So spoke Gennaro Gattuso in a famous post-match interview following a 1-0 with over Roma that delivered Milan the 2003/04 Scudetto, pointing to a clean-shaven, good-looking young man standing next to him. But then, he continued, “after a couple of days, I realized and said ‘Alright, we brought in another phenomenon here who will make a difference.’”
He was speaking about Ricardo Izecson dos Santos Leite, better known as Kaká. It was the Brazilian prodigy’s maiden season on Italian soil, and he had taken the Serie A by storm, suddenly turning into Milan’s secret weapon on their way to the title after an unpretentious start.
When Ringhio Gattuso complimented his young comrade, Kaká was by now a top star in the Italian top-flight. But it all had started only a few months earlier, when he had come in as a substitute and conjured a fantastic screamer to pull the chestnuts out of the fire for the Rossoneri in a tense away match at Empoli.
That was the night when the Serie A really discovered who Kaká was.
The Brazilian striker landed in Milanello in the summer of 2003 almost stealthily. He was not meant to be the crown jewel of Milan’s calciomercato campaign, which rather focused on strengthening the defense package by bringing in his fellow countryman, three-time World Cup finalist Cafu as a free agent from Roma.
Sure, at 21, Kaká was already a World Champion, having made a few cameos during Brazil’s triumphal expedition in the Far East in 2002. But his signing was a bet, no more. Milan did not necessarily need urgent reinforcements upfront.
The trequartista role was covered by Rui Costa. On the front line, the presence of Andriy Shevchenko and Filippo Inzaghi spoke for itself while the good Jon Dahl Tomasson offered a good support option. Plus, Milan still hoped to squeeze something out of Rivaldo’s declining form. Kaká was signed as a backup option, and a backup he was at least until December.
The Brazilian collected four caps as a starter in the initial five league games, playing behind Inzaghi and Shevchenko, and embellished his start by scoring the second goal in a 3-1 routing of Hector Cuper’s Inter in the first seasonal Derby della Madonnina. However, Carlo Ancelotti eventually started to bench him, resorting to the more experienced Rui Costa. Kaká had to wait his turn. But that didn’t last long.
On December 6, 2003, Milan paid a visit to Empoli at the Carlo Castellani Stadium. It was a crucial game, coming just a few days before the Rossoneri would travel to Yokohama to take on Boca Juniors in the penultimate edition of the Intercontinental Cup.
Milan were topping the Serie A table with 27 points alongside Fabio Capello’s Roma, while Marcello Lippi’s Juventus trailed by one. They could afford no distractions, especially since Empoli, despite already being involved in the relegation dogfight, could line up a pair of strikers like Tommaso Di Natale and Tommaso Rocchi.
A fun fact: Out of the 11 players deployed by their coach Attilio Perotti on that night, nine were Italian, and even those two who were not raised in the Belpaese (Emilson Cribari and Vincenzo Grella) did hold an Italian passport. It just seems impossible to imagine nowadays, with Italian players struggling to find playing time in most Serie A clubs.
Ancelotti could not count on Cafu and Inzaghi, but the rest of his formation was the regular one. As expected, Rui Costa featured in the trequartista role in a 4-3-1-2 setup as Kaká watched the game from the bench.
The game proved to be a tough one. A gritty Empoli side fought tooth and nail and left no space to the Rossoneri. Actually, it was the Tuscan side to come closer to breaking the deadlock, with a tricky shot from Totó Di Natale in his pre-Udinese days. The diminutive striker’s effort was deflected to the post by Dida with a catlike jolt, but the ball still bounced past the goal line. Luckily for Milan, Rocchi was caught offside, and the stalemate held.
Ancelotti kept scratching his head. Milan needed the three points. On 74 minutes, he made his decision and pulled out no less than Andrea Pirlo to make room for Kaká. Seven minutes later, the Serie A had a found a new star.
With nine minutes to go, Kaká received the ball from Clarence Seedorf around the midfield line and started to advance. Initially, he seemed to signal to a teammate to move to the left, pointing his finger to that direction, just like a pass was going to be his next option. Then, a sudden idea must have come to his mind. In the blink of an eye, he raised his head, looked at the goal, and unleashed a brutal right-foot rocket some 30 meters away from the target.
Poor Luca Bucci in goal could only watch as the ball bolted past him and ended its run in the back of Empoli’s net. It was a stroke of genius that bent the Azzurri’s courageous resistance and heralded the age of Kaká in the Italian top-flight.
From then on, Ancelotti didn’t dare to leave the young phenomenon on the bench anymore. Kaká scored eight more goals in that league campaign (plus four in the Champions League), proving instrumental to Milan winning the campionato for the first time in five years. And that would be just the beginning. The young man who looked too much of a nice guy to play football had grown up fast.
December 6, 2003 – Serie A 2003-04 Round 12
EMPOLI – MILAN 0-1
SCORER: 81′ Kaká
|EMPOLI (4-3-3): Bucci; Belleri, Pratali, Cribari, Cupi (21′ Lanzaro, 84′ Carparelli); Ficini, Cappellini (59′ Foggia), Grella; Buscé, Rocchi, Di Natale (M. Cassano, Lucchini, Agostini, Gasparetto) Coach: Perotti
|MILAN (4-3-1-2): Dida; Pancaro, Nesta, Maldini, Costacurta; Seedorf, Pirlo (74′ Kaká), Gattuso (88′ Brocchi); Rui Costa (82′ Ambrosini); Shevchenko, Tomasson (Abbiati, Kaladze, Simic, Borriello) Coach: Ancelotti
REFEREE: Mr. Racalbuto from Gallarate
NOTES: Yellow Cards: Pratali (E), Nesta, Shevchenko (M)