ORLANDO, Fla. -- When Orlando City SC announced they were pursuing Kaká as the big name to underpin their MLS expansion franchise in 2014, many in the game wondered if they had taken leave of their senses.
After all, both New York Red Bulls and Los Angeles Galaxy had failed in bids to lure the former World Player of the Year away from Europe, so why did the league newcomers think they could crack the Brazilian code in this instance? True, Kaká himself had expressed a strong desire to play in MLS, if not finish his career in the US. But it still seemed a major leap to imagine him plying his trade with a brand new team in Central Florida.
Now, after a successful debut year – including nine goals, seven assists and an MLS All-Star Game MVP performance – there is no doubting where he is, and his impact in purple. Everyone knows his soccer pedigree by now, but the story of how he ended up in Orlando is not such common knowledge.
When Flavio Augusto da Silva came on board as Orlando co-owner in late 2013 there was an instant connection. Kaká already had an endorsement deal with da Silva’s Wise Up language schools, so the two had a ready-made line of communication. Kaká was still an AC Milan player at the time, though, having signed a two-year contract late that summer.
In addition to his links to Wise Up, Kaká had a long-standing personal relationship with Alex Leitão, da Silva’s right-hand man and new Orlando City CEO. Leitão had worked in sports marketing for many years and one of his original clients was an up-and-coming Kaká. When da Silva was looking to become a World Cup sponsor for the 2014 tournament in Brazil, he met up with Leitão, and the connection became unbreakable. “Why did I hire Kaká?” said da Silva. “On Alex’s recommendation, because he had been working with Kaká for the last 12 years, in soccer terms. He used it to mold his sponsorship, but started a friendship. From 2012, I had a relationship with Kaká before I was even thinking of having a club here.”
Milan's loss was Orlando City's gain
While Kaká was intrigued by the idea of playing in America, it would not have been possible but for an unexpected hiccup in the usually smooth Serie A progress of the Rossoneri. His two-year contract had a get-out clause a year early if Milan failed to achieve a Champions League place in the 2013-14 season. Despite 14 goals from Mario Balotelli and another seven from Kaká, the team finished only eighth, well outside the Champions League places. That finish paved the way for a move to MLS.
The big question, once Milan’s league fate was sealed, became would he actually activate the get-out clause; did he still want to leave? “If Milan wins a Champions League place, I had to stay there,” Kaká confirmed. “If Milan didn’t go, I could leave. At the end of the season, we didn’t make the Champions League, so I could leave. But I said to them to wait until I could decide.”
He had options
There were several offers to stay in Europe, but the heavyweight deals came from the Middle East and China. “They both wanted him to come,” da Silva said. “Qatar and China had the big money and they were ready to pay.”
Building a legacy
Orlando’s personal connections with Kaká ultimately paid off, along with his desire to achieve a lasting legacy with his career. “Things about the Orlando project were more important to me,” he said. “I had a big offer to go to China and other markets to earn money, and I decided to be part of a long-term project, not just come here and play in MLS. This is what they told me and this is what convinced me to come here. This project and this league, we have a foundation to grow. I can see the organization and planning that this league has to grow, so I decided to come here.”
Social media man
Kaká is one of the most popular soccer players on social media, with more than 24 million Twitter followers and 32 million Facebook fans worldwide. Of course, when you post photos of your trips to the Ballon d'Or awards, the Super Bowl, a court-side viewing of a Los Angeles Lakers game and a photo with Kobe Bryant, and the iconic Daytona Speedway, all in the last month, who wouldn't want to follow the midfielder's latest exploits?
Gotta love the theme parks
While it was important he had that personal basis for the move, another factor in his decision was the theme parks of Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando. Yes, really. Before there was even an inkling of playing in America, Kaká – like hundreds of thousands of Brazilians every year – happily visited Mickey Mouse and company. “I had been coming here a lot, five or six years in a row, with kids and without kids,” he admitted. “I love the parks and this side of the city. When I knew about Orlando City, I started to think, why not live in the city I like?”
His favorite Disney character? Donald Duck.
Welcome to Orlando!
Kaká made his first public appearance in Orlando as a City player in July 2014, on the eve of the USA’s World Cup showdown with Belgium. The city was already abuzz with World Cup fever and went positively crazy with a welcome for the great Brazilian. Hundreds turned up at the airport to welcome him, and thousands more in downtown.
Props to the diehard fans
The fact the Lions sold out the Citrus Bowl for their opener against New York City FC is well known by now, but it wasn’t the game that most impressed the team’s main Designated Player. The fans pulled off their greatest mark of appreciation, in Kaká’s estimation, in the home game against Chicago Fire on Aug. 29. Stormy weather caused two long delays and the game did not finish until 12:10 am, by which time the drenched fans behind the south goal could have been forgiven for heading home. The fact the majority stayed to the bitter end to cheer their team made a lasting impression. “That was a special night for me,” Kaká said. “I think our fans are very special, too.”
Kaká stole the show at last year's MLS All-Star Game against Tottenham Hotspur, winning MVP honors and gaining the acclaim of fellow All-Stars and Spurs players alike. Sounds like Orlando City players have it pretty good playing alongside the Brazilian on a daily basis.
Dreams of Copa America?
He's won the World Cup, Serie A and La Liga titles and a host of other competitions in his career. Will Kaká be part of the squad that competes for this summer's Copa America Centenario title in the United States?
"Hopefully!” he told reporters at a media roundtable last month in Southern California. “Hopefully I can play in the Copa America. I’ll do my best.”
Adding to his chances is the fact that Brazil coach Dunga called up the veteran on multiple occasions in 2015.