In January, it seems pretty safe to say that either Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo will win the Ballon d’Or. The Barcelona and Real Madrid superstars have dominated the award for a decade now, and their duopoly shows few signs of ending despite recent challenges from the likes of Antoine Griezmann, Neymar and Luis Suarez.
As hard as it is to believe these days, it was not always thus. Prior to Ronaldo’s first triumph in 2008 – Messi came second that year – no player had claimed the prize in back-to-back years since Milan striker Marco van Basten in 1989 and 1990. The Dutchman came out on top again in 1992, with Michel Platini and Johan Cruyff the other men to have secured the honour three times; Franz Beckenbauer, Brazilian striker Ronaldo, Alfredo Di Stefano, Kevin Keegan and Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, meanwhile, were voted into first place by their peers on two separate occasions. There has, however, never been anything like the current Messi and Ronaldo era, with the former having received the accolade five times (in 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2015) and the latter four (in 2008, 2013, 2014 and 2016).
Kaka was the last recipient of the award before it became the preserve of the same two men. The Brazilian, then playing for Milan, collected 444 votes to Ronaldo’s 277 and Messi’s 255 to deservedly scoop the prize after a fantastic individual campaign in which he helped the Rossoneri to their seventh Champions League title.
Kaka signed for the Italian giants in 2003, when Sao Paulo – the club he first joined at the tender age of eight – accepted an €8.5m bid for the attacking midfielder’s services. He hit the ground running on the peninsula, scoring 10 goals in 30 Serie A appearances in his debut season as Milan finished 11 points clear of second-placed Roma to win the 17th league championship in their history, and then helped Carlo Ancelotti’s side to the Champions League final the following year. Despite storming into a three-goal lead after 44 minutes of that match against Liverpool in Istanbul, the Serie A side contrived to lose 3-2 on penalties, although Kaka did at least manage to convert his own spot-kick.
Milan may have ended the 2005/06 campaign without a trophy, but they came roaring back the following season. The Italian top flight did not bring much success – local rivals Inter won the league under Roberto Mancini that year, with Milan finishing fourth behind Roma and Lazio thanks in part to an eight-point deduction for their involvement in the Calciopoli scandal – but Ancelotti led the club to another Champions League final against Liverpool, which produced a much better outcome than 24 months previously.
Kaka, like the majority of his team-mates, saved his best for Europe in 2006/07: his 31 outings in Serie A brought eight goals and six assists, while the then-Brazil international managed 10 goals and three assists in his 15 Champions League appearances. Deployed in an advanced midfield role in a 4-3-2-1 formation – Clarence Seedorf played alongside him, with Andrea Pirlo, Massimo Ambrosini and Rino Gattuso in deeper positions and Pippo Inzaghi as the lone centre-forward – Kaka was outstanding throughout the European campaign.
In the group stage, he netted a penalty against AEK Athens and four goals across two games against Anderlecht, before scoring a dramatic injury-time winner to send Milan through to the quarter-finals at Celtic’s expense. Kaka was again on target in the 4-2 aggregate triumph over Bayern Munich in the last eight, and then delivered a stunning all-round performance in the first leg of the semi-final against Manchester United – Milan may have lost that match 3-2, but they ran out comfortable 3-0 winners at San Siro eight days later. Inzaghi’s brace in the final earned the striker the headlines, but Kaka was again superb, laying on several chances for his colleagues and providing the assist for Inzaghi’s second as Milan enacted revenge on Liverpool with a 2-1 victory.
It was a tremendous year for the Brazilian on both an individual and collective level. As subsequent seasons have demonstrated, holding off competition from both Messi and Ronaldo to win the Ballon d’Or is no mean feat.