Watching Bundesliga games in these past few weeks has been a curious experience.
Apart from the obvious lack of noise and what that takes away from things, the empty stands somehow carry a sense of doom, probably because behind closed doors games are usually associated with someone doing something wrong.
In many respects it’s football stripped of the context, which depending on your perspective either diminishes it to the point of pointlessness, or strips everything back to the very basics, the elements of football. One thing it does is allow you – force you, perhaps – to focus on other things. When you lose one sense another can be heightened, so without crowd noise to hear and the general atmosphere to soak up, there is more of a focus on the aesthetics of football, and specifically footballers.
During Tuesday’s procession of inevitability, as Borussia Dortmund started well but were ultimately undone by a combination of Bayern and a vague sense that they would always fold and submit, without any of the other distractions I started pay more attention to how some of the players moved.
The smoothness of Alphonso Davies’s stride, for example, a player who sprints so effortlessly you’re only loosely aware that his boots are touching the ground. He looks a bit like those old athletics computer games, where the runners run quickly but, presumably due to the limitations of the gaming software back then, their legs only actually move every ten metres or so. The sheer vastness of Erling Haaland, resembling a Beluga plane, something of such odd and enormous proportions that you think it shouldn’t be possible that it moves the way it can. Even Thomas Muller, whose awkward limbs make him look like an Imperial AT-ST, jerking its way through the forest moon of Endor.
All of which made me think of the most aesthetically pleasing footballers of the last couple of decades, the ones that you would notice the most in a silent stadium, and my mind kept returning to Kaka.
The player nicknamed by Italian journalist Carlo Pellegatti, as detailed in Kaka’s episode of Golazzo, as the “white smoking jacket”, had extraordinary and effortless grace. He was a man so elegant that he almost looked like he was playing with a martini glass in one hand and a cigarette holder in the other, so smooth that he wouldn’t spill a drop or let a fleck of ash hit the floor.
James Richardson suggested he resembled a “tennis pro, giving lessons to rich adolescents.” And it’s true, he didn’t really look like a footballer, a human being with absolutely no rough edges, who didn’t look like he had scrapped and struggled through rough and poverty-filled childhoods to get where he was, but was simply placed there by circumstances and his own talent. Which, given his very privileged background, actually isn’t that far from the truth.
The back stories of most other players are much more satisfying, those who did have to overcome great societal inequalities to reach the top. And those other, less classically graceful players are of course excellent to watch, just in a different way to Kaka.
More seasoned Serie A watchers will probably think of many other games in Italy when they think of Kaka, but for Anglo viewers it’s almost impossible not to call to mind that Champions League semi-final against Manchester United. The goal he scored in the second leg, in Milan, represented one facet of Kaka, creating space and battering in a shot from the edge of the area. But it’s the one at Old Trafford that seems to sum him up the most. Maybe that’s why it’s his favourite.
“My second goal in the Champions League semi-final first leg against Manchester United was a highlight of my career,” he said a few years ago. “When the ball dropped from Dida’s long pass all I was thinking about was trying to do something special. To do it at Old Trafford, with all the history of the stadium, was amazing.”
It’s the “trying to do something special” bit that really sticks out there. Logically you would think that, at the moment, a player wanted to score a goal, and would be concentrating on that and only that. Kaka wanted more than that. It was as if he knew he’d score – that was a given – but that he wanted the flourish. That was the important bit, rather than the goal. This was football for football’s sake.
That goal was also pretty pleasing for the destruction he left in his wake, Gabriel Heinze and Patrice Evra colliding and ending up in a puddle of irritation, like a couple of the Joker’s hapless henchmen (in the old, 1960s Adam West version) trying to grab Batman but only succeeding in taking each other out. You half expected a big jagged yellow and pink splat with POW! written in the middle to appear over the top of them.
Kaka perfected the art of making defenders look stupid. Often he managed it with the simplicity and efficiency of his skill, gliding past without seemingly doing a great deal. He wasn’t one for excessive lollipops or needless flamboyance, just simple and spare elegance, like an entirely white, minimalist home.
In short, Kaka was a player you could watch and admire without any of the context. He was the sort of player who would stand out and wouldn’t lose anything in the cavernous silence of an empty Westfalenstadion.
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