Inside My Mind: 2007 Champions League Final

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The huge, constant roar that descends onto the pitch for a Champions League final is impossible to forget. It’s a heavy, deafening, all-encompassing noise that suspends time and fills my soul. 

Gerrard and Kuyt are ready for the kickoff. Until one of them touches the ball the world hangs in suspended animation. A Champions League final is like that. 

Come on, referee, blow the whistle! 

I look behind me and see Dida, Oddo, Nesta, Maldini and Jankulovski. 

“This defense is very strong.” 

That’s what they said two years ago when we played against the very same Liverpool, in Istanbul, and we led 3–0 in the first half. 

“This defense is very strong.”

We conceded three goals in less than 10 minutes and lost the title on penalties. 

How was that possible?! 

Logic doesn’t explain it, but I’ve learned that I don’t control the outcome of the game. However, with preparation, I can increase my chances of winning.

I take another look behind me. Ambrosini, Gattuso, Pirlo and Seedorf are standing in front of our defense. More than talent, we have a champions’ environment, an atmosphere that always demands you raise your level. In my mind, I try to picture the way the game will unfold, imagining the attacking and defensive moves I will have to execute, the spaces I will attack, how the opponent will play. At the same time, I quiet the many voices in my head and let my instinct be free, calm, and serene to do what I couldn’t imagine. That’s how it’s been until now. The automatic tactical movements put me in the right place on the field. I need to do my part as best I can, making as few mistakes as possible. In decisive games, the details write the story’s outcome, but the fear of making mistakes cannot block my creativity. I’ve always enjoyed playing the big battles. This tense imaginary game kicks off the night before the final and continues through to the moment the Champions League anthem plays. 

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OK, here we are again. But what if ... we don’t win again

But I know that soon only the fans will feel stressed. It’s always like that. I feel our fans supporting us like never before. They are passionate, they have inspired us throughout the entire season, they believe in us, but there is the drama of the final with the memory of 2005. In Milan, there is only one chant: “Alè, Milan alè, forza lotta vincerai non ti lasceremo mai!”

For me, as soon as Gerrard touches the ball, everything will become lighter. My desire to be a champion will transport me back to the sunny days of my childhood when I would spend the entirety of break during middle school kicking a ball made of rolled up socks. The thought calms me. The feelings of fear and excitement will be less tangled, the roar will be distant, the voice of the love for football will echo in my movements, and I will play happily and freely as I did as a child.

It was at school in São Paulo where it all started. Before that, while living in Brasilia and Cuiabá, my family wasn’t that into football. I enjoyed watching the Tricolor on TV, but we were more into fishing. My father would organize trips to the Pantanal wetlands with his friends and take me with him. I loved it…. But then, when we moved to São Paulo, I ended up getting hooked on football. Forever. I played so much that the P.E. teacher called my mother: “Look, I recommend that you take Ricardo to a club because he is different from the other boys. Not just his skill with the ball, but his desire.” So that’s what she did. 

What is this referee waiting for? Come on, man! 

At my side, Inzaghi seems more animated than usual. What is he thinking about? Those semifinals against Manchester United? Those were some games! In the first leg, at Old Trafford, Cristiano Ronaldo scored after just five minutes. Then I scored twice, and a comforting silence muted their stadium. All this in the first half. In the second, Rooney scored twice as well, and they took the victory. But it was a great match, and despite the result, no one in Milan felt defeated that night. 

In the return leg, at San Siro, under heavy, blessed rain, we achieved what the Italian press still calls La Partita Perfetta: 3–0. I opened the scoring after Seedorf headed the ball back towards the edge of the area. It bounced once, giving me time to take a quick look at Van der Sar, before hitting a powerful left-foot shot into the bottom corner. It was wonderful. Then Seedorf and Gilardino sealed our place in the final. 

At last, the referee blows the whistle. The final begins! 

You know, I don’t really like the word revenge. I find it heavy and imprecise. OK, sure the opponents are the same, the shirts, the coaches too. But there are different players on both sides. We are in Athens, not Istanbul, and I am not the same as in 2005. That year, I played in the midfield four, with Crespo and Shevchenko up front. This time, our center forward is Inzaghi, and Ancelotti has asked me to play a free role, closer to him. It’s been working. I’ve already scored 10 in the Champions League this season. Such a blessing!

How time flies…. 

It seems like not so long ago that my father bought a São Paulo FC membership, and we started going to the games. For me, it became football in the morning (at school), afternoon and evening (at São Paulo). The ball was the air I breathed. I went to compete in the championship for club members, and the coaches soon pulled me to train with the youth team. But I didn't see anything different about myself, nothing special. I’m being real with you. There were some kids training there who were much better than me. And I had a problem: a two-year delay in the growth of my bones, which made me much smaller than the other boys my age. 

Because of this, the ages of 12 to 14 were an emotional growth time for me. I would train, train, train, but never play. So many times, I was forced to watch the matches from the stands. It was disappointing, but it was also a time of character building. I sought support from my family and God, the greatest strength of all, as I would soon discover. 

I would come home demotivated. “I don’t want this anymore. I’m going to quit football.” One day, my parents told me: “It’s OK if you want to give it up. But you need to find something that fills your heart with joy and gives you strength when you feel disheartened. Because life is like that, always alternating between good moments and bad. The secret is to find something you love to do that helps you through the bad times.”

I went to sleep with that in my mind, and when I woke up, there was only one thing I could say that I loved doing: playing football. “So get ready and go train.” It was a close call. How blessed I am to have a mum and dad capable of giving advice like that?? It has made all the difference in my life. 

Oh, my God, already?! Get it out! Get it out! 

In the first dangerous move of the match, 10 minutes in, Dida makes one of his supernatural saves, and I wonder if history is going to repeat itself. Not again?????

Now it’s our turn…. 

The ball comes to me, around 16 minutes. I’m a little far away, but I’ll take a chance. I bring it down with my chest, put it on the ground and … whoosh! Their keeper saves it. What a match this is. There’s no break in play. Both teams are trying to score, and the defenders are giving their lives to keep it out. 

Suddenly the ball drops to me again. Great. Inzaghi is offside. Come back, Pippo, come back, otherwise, I can’t play you in. OK, I’m going to shoot instead. But … Ooooof! Where did so many guys in red come from?! Six Liverpool players surround me. That’s too many. Xabi Alonso knocks me down with a push. The good thing is that the position of the foul is in Pirlo’s favorite spot. In training, he scores every time from here. He places it like his foot is a hand. Dai, Andrea! Dai! He sends it towards the right of the keeper and…. Wait, get out, get out, get out of the way!!! The ball deflects off Inzaghi on its way through, and the roar grows, drowning out everything, but this time, it brings only joy. We barely hear what we say to each other during the celebrations let alone what Ancelotti is shouting from the bench. Milan 1–0! 

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On the way to the dressing room, I remember the doctor who treated me in the most dramatic moment of my career, back in 2000. Why is this memory coming to me right now? I have no idea. I was 18. 

“When will I be able to play again, doctor?” 

“Today is not the day for questions. Today is the day to be grateful because, in most cases like yours, the patient doesn’t even walk again. So today, you just give thanks.” 

My entire body was shaking. I had proof that God was always supporting me because there was no logical explanation for what happened. 

After going out on loan to Club Athletico Paulistano in São Roque, where I developed a lot tactically and mentally, I returned to São Paulo FC’s under-20s as a starter and suddenly felt the weight of expectation at having a real chance at making it to professional level. My friend Júlio Baptista had already done it. Then, in October 2000, I found myself suspended for one match after receiving a third yellow card of the campaign. The coach gave me time off, and I went to visit my grandparents in Caldas Novas. 

Who could’ve imagined it? Innocently playing at the water park. I went down a slide and hit my head on the bottom of the pool — fracturing the sixth cervical vertebra. I ended that year without playing, wearing a neck brace, fearing for my future. It was hard. Apart from my relationship with God, everything else was uncertain. I started thinking about what I would study at university, if that was to be my path. But the recovery was surprising, and I was allowed back to train as early as January. 

If, up until that moment, my own spiritual experience had already proved to be as powerful as the stadium roar during the Champions League final, what was yet to come was surreal. 

I was back in training but still stuck on the bench. Our team was flying, ready to compete in the 2001 São Paulo Cup – the biggest youth competition in all of Brazil. But then Vadão, the first-team coach, requested some under-20 boys to play in the Rio-São Paulo Tournament. So off I went. One match, another, and the Tricolor kept on advancing. Suddenly, we were in the final against Botafogo. And we were losing 1–0. Halfway through the second half, Vadão looked over at the bench and pointed at me. “Come here, boy!” Nobody knew me. A commentator called me “the boy Ricardo Kaká from the youth team”, and on TV, my name appeared written with a C: Cacá. The Champions League final is about to start again, so I’ll cut a long story short: I ended up scoring twice and São Paulo FC won an unprecedented title — a debut more supernatural than Dida’s saves. 

Just a few months later, I was in the Brazil national team. Can you believe it? And the following year, my name — I don’t even know if with a K or C — was the last one on Felipão’s squad list for the 2002 World Cup. 

I had been called up for some national team matches before, but only in squads with other players still playing in Brazil. When it was time to join the “foreigners” in Barcelona ​before heading to Malaysia and then on to Japan, I arrived at the hotel breakfast room and all those guys I used to pick on my video games started coming out of the lift. One by one. 

Ronaldo. Rivaldo. Cafu. Roberto Carlos…. What am I doing here, man?! 

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Ronaldo was the first to come and talk to me. I think I reminded him of himself when he was the youngest player on the 1994 World Cup team. “Listen, anything you need, whether it’s just some toothpaste or to talk about how much you miss your family, come to my room. You can always count on us.” The guy was o fenômeno, and not only on the pitch. 

Being world champion at 20 was incredible. I played a few minutes against Costa Rica in the group stage and, at the end of the final against Germany, Felipão called me over. I handed the sheet to the fourth official, he raised the board, and the commentator Galvão Bueno said: “Is there enough time for Kaká the kid to come on?” There wasn’t. But that’s OK. When the referee blew his whistle at the end of the match and the whole of Brazil shouted, “It’s five!” I was on the touchline just like I am now. But this time I still have a whole second half to face. 

Andiamo, ragazzi! Focus, concentration…. Don’t let it slip this time. 

To be honest, I don’t remember Ancelotti's instructions at halftime. But I’m sure he only said good things, as always. When I arrived at Milan in 2003, despite being a world champion, I was very young and he looked after me. Ancelotti is an expert at this. He listens, explains his decisions, and does everything he can to make everyone feel calm and vital to the team. That’s not easy in a group full of established stars like Maldini, Cafu, Seedorf…. 

By the way, this squad had just won the Champions League. Before signing my contract with Milan, I remember Leonardo, the club’s director and someone I knew from back in São Paulo, told me something that stuck with me when the transfer negotiations stalled. 

“Man, Milan won the Champions League, and we don’t plan to make many changes to the current squad. Here, we are grateful for our champions. We value them,” Leo explained.

I ended up at Milan a few months later, but I was struck by the power of those words: “Milan won the Champions League.” I understood for the first time what kind of club this was and how special they are in the way they deal with players.

In my first season in Italy, the opponents didn’t know me yet and I had the freedom to play. And I did very well. We became Serie A champions, and I was chosen as footballer of the year in the league. 

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The next year, my form dipped. I was no longer a novelty. The players knew me; they knew what I could do, so the marking got tighter, and I had difficulty finding spaces. Ancelotti’s assistants sprang into action. One day, we all went to the famous Milan Lab — the club’s department that takes care of the players’ physical and mental health and analyzes performance. We watched a load of videos together, observing my decisions, mistakes and successes. 

From a very young age, my game was to take the ball and run, take the ball and run. Clear, direct and perhaps a little predictable. But there at the Milan Lab, Ancelotti spoke to me in that calm tone of his: “It’s time for you to learn to play without the ball. Moving to create space for yourself, or your fellow players. This will improve your performance.” 

Back to the second half of the Champions League final and I think I’ve evolved a bit since that conversation. Another 45 minutes — my turn to kick off. The roar has returned in a big way and it seems to engulf not only the pitch but the world. You can feel it in Athens, Milan, Brasilia, England, São Paulo, and even on that little fishermen’s boat in Pantanal. 

Uh oh, not even two minutes into the game, and Nesta is already forced to make a tackle inside the box to save us from Gerrard on the attack. This guy is on it today. Come on, let’s go at them, too! I sprint down the left, and again, I get taken down on the edge of the area. Here comes Pirlo. Ooooof! Over the bar. 

There’s not a moment to take in what’s happening because, after a wrong pass from Gattuso, Gerrard makes his way into our penalty area unmarked. We’re screwed! The only reason Liverpool aren’t level is because Dida, at full stretch, saves it close to the ground. Fantastic Dida! 

Ten more minutes and that’s it. The ball passes me by. It’s not long now. Fatigue starts to hit everyone. With the last bit of oxygen, my brain brings up that conversation with Ancelotti at the Milan Lab, and I find some empty space in midfield to move into. 

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Come to me, come, come….

Ambrosini passes me the ball, and I move forward. I raise my head and see Inzaghi darting round the back of the defense. I dummy a shot and slide him in. 

Go, Pippo, go! 

He takes it wide and touches it under the goalkeeper. A touch so soft that the ball seems to take all my 25 years to cross the line. 


There are two minutes plus stoppage time left, and I’m very close to becoming a Champions League winner. When Kuyt gets one back for Liverpool, I almost ask if we’ll let it slip again. But today is also a day not to ask questions. In these five final minutes no logical thought comes to mind. Now, it’s just about fighting. It’s about running, however you can. Just run and kick the ball as far as possible from our area. The referee, who took so long to start the game, seems even slower to finish it. 

It’s over, ref! 

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There it is! A new, amazing sound pierces the night at Athens’ Olympic Stadium: the final whistle. Milan have won the Champions League. I have finished as the competition’s top scorer, and, though I’m still unaware of it, I will receive the Ballon d’Or and the FIFA Best Men’s Player award at the end of 2007. 

And then, kneeling in the center of the pitch, I am fulfilled. A strong feeling of gratitude washes over me, and I collapse. All versions of Kaká are here. 

The little schoolboy addicted to kicking sock balls. The one who loved fishing. The one who, on the verge of giving up, heard the most precious advice from his parents when everything seemed impossible. The teenager who broke his sixth cervical vertebra at the bottom of a swimming pool. Ricardo “Cacá” from the youth team, who came from the bench to score the two goals to win an unlikely title for São Paulo FC. The youngster who was “adopted” by none other than Ronaldo in Japan in 2002.

I kneel because I can’t bear the weight of so much emotion. Slowly, I take off my Milan shirt, because I want everyone to know my gratitude. It is printed on my chest, on the T-shirt I wear underneath: I BELONG TO JESUS. 

I do. 

I know it’s not the day to ask questions, but I can’t help it. How can we not believe that He has prepared everything? How can I not believe that my story is a miracle, and that He always had a purpose for me? How can I continue to deserve it? How can I never stray from Your presence? Only He completes me entirely. And, in the future, what will I say if you ask me what it is like to play in a Champions League final? 

I will say that playing in a Champions League final is simply: a roar. The roar of life. A sound that forges our character in victory or defeat.

And as soon as the ball rolls, everything you imagined about this moment stops, and the roar becomes a call, loud and clear, to seek your destiny.