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Brazil's mighty Kaka gets his grin back

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carmelo imbesi / the associated press
AC Milan forward Kak�� celebrates after scoring during the Serie A soccer match between Catania and AC Milan on Dec. 1.

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carmelo imbesi / the associated press AC Milan forward Kak�� celebrates after scoring during the Serie A soccer match between Catania and AC Milan on Dec. 1.

Few sights in world football are as joyous as the image of Kak°, having just scored a goal or set up a teammate, strolling back to the centre circle while trying to hide a boyish grin that simply won't be suppressed.

He may be 31-years-old, but Kak° needs to enjoy his football the way a child enjoys it to be successful, and over the past two months that enjoyment, that pure pleasure of playing, has once again infused everything the Brazilian has done on the pitch.

He's got his smile back. And while it now seems as though it never left, there was a time -- and not that long ago -- when Kak° appeared tired of football, when even playing the game he mastered as a youth in S£o Paulo looked a chore for him.

Went to pieces

There was also a time when Kak° was among the best footballers in the world.

He has the Ballon d'Or and FIFA World Player of the Year awards from 2007 to prove it, as well as the Serie A and Champions League winners' medals we won with AC Milan during his first stint at the club.

In fact, Kak°'s well-founded reputation as an elite playmaker had so ballooned that in the spring of 2009, six years after moving to Italy, he was sold to Real Madrid for a world-record fee of £56 million.

Then it all went to pieces.

Historically healthy and fit, Kak° had suffered an ankle injury the previous February and was still troubled by the problem when he arrived in the Spanish capital that June. The matter was never properly dealt with, and about midway through the season the then-27-year-old wound up on the sidelines for a month.

The following August it was a knee injury that felled Kak°, dooming him to the therapist's room for the entire first half of the season.

By the time he returned in early 2011 his place in the squad had been claimed by Mesut Ozil -- the Germany international who had so impressed at the 2010 World Cup and was acquired, at least in part, to replace a player suddenly viewed as injury-prone.

Kak° figured in only 27 Primera Division matches that season and turned out just 19 times in the Spanish top flight in 2012-13.

Then, in September, a lifeline: he was reacquired by AC Milan.

Italian renaissance

Perhaps it was because they felt they could provide him an Italian renaissance; perhaps his performance-related transfer fee made sense given a deteriorating financial situation.

Whatever the case, Milan's repatriation of Kak° was the ultimate low-risk, high-reward transaction, and two months into their reunion both club and player are looking like they never separated.

In nine matches since his return to the San Siro, Kak° has scored three goals, completed 85 per cent of his passes and created 25 scoring chances for his teammates -- more than anyone else in the team.

He has also scored three times in all competitions since Nov. 23, and against Ajax on Wednesday he played 80 minutes -- 58 of them in a side with just 10 men -- and helped close down space as the Rossoneri ground out a 0-0 result that put them into the next round of the Champions League.

"I don't regret those years in a Real shirt," he remarked in his presentation press conference on September 5. "But," he added, "I did lose a little desire to play."

Well, the desire has returned, and the proof can be seen tugging at the side of his mouth.

After scoring against Lazio on Oct. 30, Kak° leaped into the air and was quickly swarmed by his teammates. Then, as he made his way back to the middle of the pitch, that grin.

He'd got his smile back.

jerradpeters@gmail.com Twitter @JerradPeters

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 14, 2013 C13

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