Kaká and Orlando City: How the soccer legend helped to propel the club and soccer in Orlando
"Kaká means ‘sh*t’ in Spanish.” The now infamous words muttered to the Brazilian legend Rivaldo by a reporter, when Rivaldo mentioned a wiley young player who had come through the ranks of the famed Say Paulo academy. Rivaldo replied, curtly: “I know, but he’s definitely not.”
In his prime Kaká was the best player in the world, of that there can be no question. During the 2006/07 season Kaká was unplayable at times. He lead the UEFA Champions League scoring charts with 10, and claimed the Ballon D'or at the end of the season. He was a true star and quickly became the the world's most coveted player, eventually leading to a €67m transfer from AC Milan to Real Madrid. Kaká had already won the Scuddetto, Supercopa Italiana, UEFA Champions League and FIFA Club World Cup prior to his move to Madrid. In addition to the 2002 FIFA World Cup The Brazilian would go on to add a La Liga title, as well as a Copa Del Rey to an already trophy laden CV. There had been murmurings that the Brazilian maestro had his eyes set on an early retirement. And who could have blamed him. Few could have predicted that he would end his career in central Florida.
Orlando had been gaining traction as Florida's soccer hub for a few years, prior to Kaká's arrival. The fledgling Orlando City had already established themselves as a USL power house following on from the club's formation in 2010. The club's 2013 USL Pro Championship game attracted a record crowd of 20,886. Soccer was on the up in the City Beautiful. MLS inauguration beckoned, but what the team really needed was a huge name. A signing that would put Orlando City on the global footballing map. They certainly got that.
Kaká arrived amid much fanfare, with a record MLS base salary of $6.6m a year. Excitement levels reached fever pitch for the Orlando fan base. I mean, who could forget that airport arrival? Soccer had never been such a topic of interest for the city. For soccer to take centre stage in a city synonymous with the NBA and college football, was really quite something. 62,510 fans packed the Citrus Bowl to see Kaká and Orlando City make their collective MLS bows. There were high hopes that Kaká would lead the Lions to MLS success, and further propel the sport in the city and country as a whole.
On the pitch, that hasn't quite worked out as we all well know. Kaká's presence in Orlando helped to establish the City Beautiful as a true soccer haven. Even today, his jersey can be seen all over Exploria Stadium on game day. For many he was, and still is, a huge part of their fandom. Kaká ingrained himself into the Orlando City fan base and the hearts of the city as a whole through his play on the field and conduct away from it. He was a regular site on the wall during games he was injured or suspended for. He also took the time time to visit families of the Pulse tragedy victims. He was Orlando through and through by the time he left, still maintaining strong links with the club. I'm not ashamed to admit I shed a year when he presented Nani with his MLS All-Star berth. His record is not too bad either, with the Brazilian netting 24 goals in 75 appearances for the Lions. There are those nay sayers who claim he should have done better on the field. I for one think such claims are outlandish, particularly when you consider the quality of the teams he featured in.
Kaká arrived amid much fanfare, with a record MLS base salary of $6.6m a year. Excitement levels reached fever pitch for the Orlando fan base. I mean, who could forget that airport arrival? Soccer had never been such a topic of interest for the city. For soccer to take centre stage in a city synonymous with the NBA and college football, was really quite something. 62,510 fans packed the Citrus Bowl to see Kaká and Orlando City make their collective MLS bows. There were high hopes that Kaká would lead the Lions to MLS success, and further propel the sport in the city and country as a whole. On the pitch, that hasn't quite worked out as we all well know. His presence in Orlando has helped to establish the City Beautiful as a true soccer haven. Even today, his jersey can be seen all over Exploria Stadium on game day. For many he was, and still is, a huge part of their fandom.
Now, you could argue attendances have declined over recent years (they have) and that referring to Orlando as a soccer haven with that in mind is a fallacy. But to pay much credence to that argument, in relation to Kaká's impact on Orlando City and soccer's popularity in the area, would be folly. Kaká's influence on the city's soccer landscape goes far deeper than that. Orlando City is now very much a part of the lifeblood of the city. It's a huge part of the city's sporting culture. The club was entwining itself with the local sporting landscape for a few years before Kaká arrived. The former Real Madrid playmaker simply turboboosted this process of intertwining.
Kaká was a global star in the truest sense, he thrust the club into the global soccer consciousness. It was headline news worldwide. People all over the world soon knew the name, Orlando City. And whilst it's fair to say that expansion teams always receive a fair amount of publicity when entering the league, they do not always receive global coverage. Cincinnati and Nashville are prime examples. Whilst many MLS fans were excited to see further growth of the league, neither team has received much coverage globally. MLS clubs still need stellar names to promote themselves internationally. Some may see that as the height of Euro snobbery, but it's the truth. Just look at Fort Lauderdale FC. I can assure you, that everyone in the UK has at least heard the name Inter Miami CF because of David Beckham's involvement. Kaká gave that to Orlando. I often get comments when wearing my Orlando City jersey around my hometown of Nottingham. I was recently stopped on a nature reserve in a small Nottinghamshire village called by someone who wanted to talk Kaká and Nani.
Whilst I'm not trying to suggest we are this global soccer marketing power house, you'll understand the point I'm trying to make. Profile and brand recognition is everything in modern day football. The signing of Kaká exponentially boosted the club's profile, and paved the way for further top quality signings such as Nani and Pedro Gallese. This in turn has allowed the club to market itself to the hundreds of thousands of international visitors the city receives every year.Orlando City have a UK supporters branch, as well as two more in Kaká's native Brazil.
This global interest provides the club, and indeed the league, with ample opportunity to commercialise itself in foreign markets like the UK and Brazil. Prior to the Fanatics purchase of Kitbag in 2016 the only team's merchandise you could readily access was that of Orlando City, LA Galaxy, NYCFC and the Red Bulls. Kaká gave Orlando at least a degree of international marketing interest. For example in 2015, 2016 and 2017 Orlando City were among the most featured clubs in Sky Sport's MLS coverage in the UK, due in no small part to Kaká. We're not talking about huge international marketability for the club, neither the club nor the leagut are there yet. But it's all about making your brand recognition, to whatever degree that may be. Kaká is a huge part of that recognition, something that Nani continues to drive for the club.
On the field, Kaká gave Orlando City supporters so many amazing memories. Memories that continue to be romanticised and spoken of with passion and fervour to this day. Who could ever forget that free-kick against NYCFC on opening day in 2015? The dawning of a new era for Orlando City Soccer Club was signed off in some style by their talisman. Then there's the golazzo he thundered into Atlanta's net in 2016. There are countless other examples. My point is Kaká had such a profound effect on and off the field he has become a part of the very fibre of this club. Orlando City is synonymous with Kaká. Just as the LA Galaxy are synonymous with David Beckham and Zlatan Ibrahimovic. That's in no way a criticism. Beckham in particular put the Galaxy and MLS on the map. Whilst Kaká's ability and influence on the pitch didn't quite lead to silverware, or even a play-off berth, his impact on the club is still profound. Arguably, just as profound as Beckham's impact in LA, at least in the context of his nurturing soccer interest in the greater Orlando area.
One thing is for sure, Ricardo Kaká will forever by synonymous with Orlando City Soccer Club. Images of his stunning free-kick against NYCFC in 2015, to images of him diving into the wall following that goal against Columbus. No one will ever forget the down to earth Brazilian legend. His impact both on and off the field has profoundly influenced soccer for good in the City Beautiful. Obrigado, Kaká.